You don’t have to be creative to enjoy the latest blockbuster at the Design Museum as much of the content is a representation of everyday images and objects. Ai Weiwei uses the space to pose a commentary on contemporary social issues, and mixes recent works with commissioned pieces, inviting the viewer to explore humanity, art and activism through his eyes. This major exhibition, developed in collaboration with the artist, will be the first to reveal his observations on the world’s changing landscape and values.
The internal walls of the main exhibition space have been removed to create a cavernous arena to encompass Weiwei’s vastly different, yet complementary works which range from large scale installations, smaller cabinets of curiosities, walls full of photographs and screenings. Without an obvious starting point, viewers can take in the whole show at once, but on closer inspection (and with the show notes), the intriguing objects are explained. Providing a sociological insight to life as he sees it, you can admire 250,000 porcelain spouts snapped off imperfect teapots during production; or investigate the duo of snake-inspired works which make an impressive statement along the length of the walls. One is made of lifejackets as a representative of the refugee crisis in Europe; and the other from rucksacks to honour the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 which crushed 5,000 school children when their badly constructed classrooms collapsed.
With five “fieldworks” as focal points on the floor, arguably, the most interesting is the enormous pile of Lego bricks, entitled ‘Lego Incident’. Lego themselves severed their association after Weiwei’s representation of political prisoners, so all the bricks and toys were donated by members of the public. Although touching is prohibited, there are spare Lego pieces if little fingers can’t help themselves from the outspilling of blocks on the floor. It is situated next to a wall-sized recreation of French impressionist Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, which is also made entirely from 650,000 pieces of Lego.
Also on display are two life-size toilet rolls made from marble and glass, which were designed in 2020 in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Whilst ‘Study of Perspectives’ is a series of photographs, which compare a finger giving the birdie to well known landmarks around the world. You can find an homage to one of his greatest influences, Marcel Duchamp. ‘Hanging Man’ is formed of a simple metal coat hanger which has been transformed into an homage of Duchamp’s recognisable profile, and is representative of Weiwei’s use of subverting an everyday object and turning it into art and admire his pop culture Coca Cola logo on a Han-dynasty vase, which is a nod to how many of us are immersed in American capitalism.
From installations to photographs to furniture, the guide is essential to unveiling the story behind every artefact, with a seemingly simple ‘Cabinet’ representing a 2012 tragedy, where five boys in Guizhou took shelter from the cold in a rubbish container, lit a fire and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Ai Weiwei is one of the most significant and recognised artists working today. Known around the world for his powerful art and activism, this show covers all disciplines, and it’s advisable to give yourself a couple of hours to enjoy his passion for art, architecture, design, film, collecting and curating.
Ai Weiwei: Making Sense is on display at London’s Design Museum from 7 April to 30 July 2023.