Ai Weiwei: Making Sense
Design Museum, Apr-Jul 2023
Using objects to try and make sense of the world is the core of the current Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Design Museum. He questions the value of things and if time changes that. Would a thousand-year ceramic pot value more than the new shiny ones that Ai made himself? How do these objects tell the story of humans? Can we remember past tragedies and prevent new ones from happening? Can we reflect on how urbanisation and mass production has distanced humans from their peers? These questions proposed by one of the most politically engaged artists working nowadays are answered through his art creation process.
The Chinese artist says he doesn’t even look at the final object; he finds life in the process, not the result. The spectator may have a different opinion after being struck by the scale of his installations. One could arguably state that the magnitude of the five “expansive fields”present in this exhibition is catchy and draws people to think deeply about the pieces, Where they came from, what they symbolise, and how the artist could have collected so many objects. 650,000 Lego bricks, 2,000 stone age tools, and nearly 250,000 tea spouts. More is more! He is clearly speaking to us through scale. Ai collected obsessively for more than three decades in a practice that is more about human history than possessing items that could be considered valuable, beautiful, or the opposite.
Phrases like “beauty can’t escape horror” and “beauty comes from the struggle” denounce that Ai’s work is personal as much as it is political. If we pay attention to the monumental 15-meter-wide Water Lillie, we will find a black door in the right section of the composition. Monet’s delighful landscape now has an underground and mischievous element that recalls a trauma experienced by Ai’s family during his childhood. In the 1960s, his father was considered an ‘anti-revolutionary’ for speaking against Mao Tse Tung’s regime. As a punishment, his family spent five years living in a hole without light, electricity or water, and a total of 18 years of exile in the Chinese desert.
Another painful memory brought in this exhibition is the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, when nearly 80,000 people died. Amongst them, 5,335 schoolchildren were crushed under the rubble. One by one, their names are remembered in a series of red seals stamped on paper. These children are commemorated again in the long, curvy snake hanging on the wall and made with school backpacks.
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