That’s exactly what happens at the Design Museum as a long rectangle of small ceramic balls feels more suited to the museum’s ASMR exhibition and yet we discover these are cannonballs made during the Song dynasty in China – something that appears decorative was actually a weapon of war used to kill and maim.
Likewise with stacks of LEGO which we associate with play, freedom and childhood. Yet when Ai used it to make portraits of political prisoners LEGO briefly stopped selling him bricks and he had to crowdsource them via social media.
He also uses LEGO to symbolise how industrialised and uniform the world has become with these bricks crossing borders but also removing the hand of the artist from the creation. It’s why he’s recreated Claude Monet’s water lilies in a giant LEGO landscape as the pond Monet painted was also a man-made creation just like the bricks he’s using. Ai has added a black section to represent the entrance to the dugout where he and his father were forced to live in exile, once again taking something that looks colourful and placing political undercurrents throughout.
These are some of the large-scale works in the show but the smaller pieces should not be overlooked as the artist takes something we often take for granted like toilet roll and recreates it in marble to elevate its status. When Ai grew up, toilet paper was a luxury product, and it became so for us in the UK too when it was in shortage during the pandemic – highlighting once again how reliant we’ve become on an industrialised world that many of us take for granted.
It’s a show jam-packed with important concepts as a wall of life-jackets brings home the impact of the number of people fleeing countries across oceans in unsafe vessels and a row of axe-heads feel like they should be in a museum display case and yet Ai found hundreds at a flea market – asking us to question what we value.
This is why we admire Ai Weiwei so much: he takes the playful and makes it political, confronts us with the systems and horrors that are hidden from us and provokes us to question our assumptions of the world around us. It’s what makes him such a political powerhouse of conceptual art.
Second image: Photo: Ed Reeve.
Third image: Copyright studio of Ai Weiwei.
|What||Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, The Design Museum, review|
|Where||Design Museum, 224-238 Kensington High Street, Kensington, London, W8 6AG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||High Street Kensington (underground)|
07 Apr 23 – 30 Jul 23, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|