Sunday 16 July 2023

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense at the Design Museum, London

Ai Weiwei - Backpack Snake & Left Right Studio Material

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense is on at the Design Museum in London until 30 July 2023 so you've still got time to visit. The exhibition is a commentary on design and our changing values - have we just made technical progress or have we lost an element of craftmanship and cultural sensibility on the way? He explores the tensions between past and present, hand and machine, precious and worthless, construction and destruction.

The exhibit, pictured below, consists of 4000 Stone Age tools that Ai Weiwei found cheaply at fleamarkets.  Any one item could be a museum exhibit but here they are treated as ordinary - a layer of forgotten and undervalued history.  Consisting of axe heads, chisels, knives and wheels they are supposed to remind us that the origins of design are bound up with the need to survive.  This was my favourite piece...

Ai Weiwei - Still Life

This Bubble is the largest sphere it is possible to make in the kiln without it cracking...

Ai Weiwei - Bubble

The fragments in the foreground of the first picture are the remains of porcelain sculptures (see Bubble above) that were destroyed when his "Left Right" studio in Beijing was destroyed by the Chinese state in 2018.  He has turned this destruction into an exhibit.

Filling one wall of the gallery was Ai Weiwei's Lego Water Lilies, a recreation of Claude Monet's famous painting but using manufactured Lego bricks rather than brushstrokes.  Introduced into this reproduction of a "natural" landscape, which was in fact by constructed by Monet at Giverny, is a dark doorway (far right) which represents the door to the underground dugout where Ai and his father, A1 Qing, lived in forced exile in the 1960s.  Quite a contrast of landscapes!

Ai Weiwei - Water Lilies #1 (Lego)

Ai Weiwei - Water Lilies #1 (detail) Lego

There were two large snakes adorning the gallery walls - a Life Vest Snake (below) and a Backpack Snake (top).  The Life Vest Snake references the victims of the refugee crisis in Europe and the Backpack Snake the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake which killed many schoolchildren.  Made from everyday objects these sculptures draw attention to the disempowered in society...

Ai Weiwei - Life Vest Snake

The Nian Nian Souvenir bears the names of the 5197 schoolchildren that died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.  Each name is stamped in an ancient script using a hand-carved jade seal - see the detail below.  These were very beautiful. 

Ai Weiwei - Nian Nian Souvenir (detail)

One of the floor exhibits is made up of 200 000 handmade high quality porcelain balls.  They are cannonballs made during the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE).  Ai Weiwei was struck by the fact that such an apparently delicate material was once used as a war weapon...

Ai Weiwei - Untitled (Porcelain Balls) 

There was another exhibit from the Song dynasty which consisted of 250 000 spouts from handmade teapots and wine ewers.  If the pots were not perfect the spout was broken off.  This gives an indication of the scale of the porcelain industry at that time. Ai Weiwei also sees it as a commentary on freedom of speech or lack of it with the spouts/mouths removed.

Ai Weiwei - Spouts

Ai Weiwei - Spouts (detail)

The success of this exhibition lies in the scale of the exhibits.  I think a single item would have much less impact than the many from Ai Weiwei's varied collections that are displayed here. There was plenty more to see but it's not a huge exhibition so you're unlikely to get gallery fatigue. The Design Museum has an interesting shop but no cafe, although there are plenty nearby.  

Well worth a visit - go see if you can!

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