Featuring Fabio on his tour-de-London.
On the last day of Fabio’s visit, we spent the morning browsing Ai Weiwei’s exhibit ‘Making Sense’ at the Design Museum.
Neither of us knew much about what to expect- I’d seen a some of his works at some point*, but could mostly only remember the middle finger photos of it all. Both of us knew he was considered a dissident- but not much more about why this was the case.
*Edit- I’ve just searched my archives and found a blog post from 2014 about visiting one of his exhibits. I guess my views are not perfectly the same (behold! the hazards of putting things on the internets), but generally, last time I liked some works a lot, but was also a bit unsure about how obvious some of the works were (Symbolism, Bam!), and the capitalism of it all.
But anyway. It’s a new year (decade, country, life), so let’s dive in with some new impressions.
Before we go in, we need some obligatory Springtime pictures.
Okok, that’s enough of that nonsense.
Let’s get into it, shall we?
The design museum itself is a beautiful object, and well worth a visit for both the architecture and the collections (free!) if you’re in town.
But for the Ai exhibit, the central space has been transformed to include a building within a building. A colourfully re-painted actual Qing dynasty noble house, resting on glass globes, and complemented by a background of wallpaper in floral canon motif:
It’s a cool effect, the way it’s fitted tightly into the entrance space, and makes a nice introduction to the exhibit itself.
So. Onto that.
I didn’t really know how to write this post, because there’s a lot going on, and it’s all in a giant open room. And – according to the pamphlet- there’s no ‘right way’ to travel through the space, so it’s a bit up to your own wandering.
So let’s first discuss that.
You enter, and the first thing you see, on the wall i front of you is two long snakes facing eachother (yeah, I’m mad at myself for not getting a landscape shot of this), and rectangular spaces underneath filled with broken and ordered objects of various kinds.
To the far right are the infamous ‘up yours’ photos, and to the left is another kind of structure (reminiscent of the house out in the foyer), and a pile of lego. There are also photos across the remaining walls, as well as cabinets filled with other art pieces.
Off to the left corner was a wooden structure, under which someone had poured a huge pile of lego.
Envious amounts, and also types, according to Fabio.
The lego came with political significance- the company had stopped selling to Ai Wei Wei after he started making portraits of dissidents from it, a problem that was solved by crowdsourcing donations.
There was also something about the anonymity of it all, and a contrast of the plastic mass manufactured with the more traditional wooden craftmanship.
And then, behind the lego pile, was a lego Monet!
Waterlilies, in plastic, with an additional dark chasm that represented a hideaway that the artist’s father spent time in during his own time of hiding from the government.
There’s something magical about art that only works at a distance, and this piece- which was maybe 4m tall and 20m wide, was just incredibly incredibly cool.
Of course, when it became clear that a couple of the blocks were slightly loose, one of us wanted to push them back in.
But we resisted.
Aside from the lego, there were four collections of things lined up in neat rectangles on the floor.
One was these small perfectly rounded stone balls, which turned out to be cannonballs…
… although I truthfully think that one of them is actually a gumball.
The second was a huge collection of literally 200,000 hand made teapot spouts, which happened to date back to the Song Dynasty (about 1000 years ago).
Apparently the teapots that were not formed perfectly were broken as a part of the quality control. The art shows not only the insanely high production levels of these handcrafted teapots, but also represents being silenced (with the spout indicating the mouth).
Also smashed, was this huge collection of urns.
I initially thought they had just been created and then smashed by the artist, which seemed like a bit of a waste (see also this), but according to the accompanying brochure they were actually broken during a 2018 raid on Ai Weiwei’s workshop in China.
My favourite of the collections (and also one that I just can’t get my head around), is what looked like a lot of stones…
….but was actually Stone Age tools (about 1600 of them). Which Ai Weiwei collected largely from flea markets?!
Behind the collection is a group of photographs showing the building of the Beijing birdsnest, which Ai helped to design, and on the other side are the famous finger photographs.
The collection itself is pretty much unbelievable, and also leads to the question of what we consider valuable in society.
Adding to this question of perceived value, is a single one of the tools (a jade axe), which has been cut into the shape of an iphone.
This I liked a lot.
USE/USELESSNESS, FRAGILITY, PERMANENCE
Across the space, there were various pieces that call into question various aspects of value, disposability, strength and permanence.
This one- a glass workers hat- was one of our favourites:
While this one, calling back to the COVID pandemic times, makes something that is less disposable, but at the same time completely useless:
Over in the corner was a huge ball, which apparently tests the limits of this kind of structural formation.
And which also, when you see it, will bring about a strong urge to kick it.
And then next to the ball are some wooden shapes, that seem almost coffin-like, with a piece of marble rebar balanced on top.
Which brings us to:
The rebar is part of a longer term project, which has involved Ai Weiwei questioning the deaths of school children following an earthquake. Many children became trapped when the building collapsed, which Ai links to poor construction in turn the result of corruption.
The first of the snakes is made from children’s backpacks:
This is really beautifully done, and it takes some time to work out what the construction material is.
The second snake is made instead of life jackets, a link to refugees who died trying to find safety.
The two snakes face inwards, to a wall filled with the names of the children who died.
Also near the snakes is a small cabinet filled with what looks like bones, but is actually porcelin.
Overall, the exhibit was impressive, and I’m really glad we went. For almost all the pieces, the full meaning of the work was not immediately apparent, but reading the details gave extra dimensions, both in terms of political intent, and, for many, some shock value.
My favourite piece was probably the backpack snake, and I also loved the stone age tools.
Let’s end on this one, shall we: