Ai Wei Wei: “Making Sense” at The Design Museum, London

“Those who are alive, live on fully –
don’t hope earth keeps a trace behind”
– Ai Qing, 1980

Last night I caught the first half of “The French Dispatch”, one of Wes Anderson’s typically stylised, revealing guides to how wealthy east coast Americans perceive the rest of the world.

We meet some amusing dealers, who attempt to hype up a murderous artist, played by Benicio Del Toro. They justify his status as a modern great by explaining that he can draw naturalistically – he simply chooses not to.

Wes Anderson’s France never existed. Ai Wei Wei’s China did, but has been largely destroyed in the rush to modernity.

In Making Sense, the [modern] artist, architect, activist, and perhaps best-known Western-based critic of modern China has, in conjunction with the Design Museum, put together a commentary on urban development, late capitalism, and infinite consumerism.

Parts of it remind me, oddly, of Pixar’s winningly bleak kids movie “Wall-E”.

Imagine Wall-E crawling across this.

There, a tiny, lonely robot wanders the surface of a ravaged earth, trying to bring order to the piles of detritus left by the humans who trashed the planet.

Ai attempts order here also, whether via the Lego converted into an impressionist painting, or the prehistoric artefacts, bought from Beijing flea markets in the 1990s, lined up on the floor – neatly, but overwhelming in their sheer number.

So much of his art is about enjoying things in new contexts. A stone-age tool is thrilling on its own, a seemingly priceless discovery; it is less so when it is lined up with hundreds of its fellows, almost like in a pre-historic production line.

Untitled (Porcelain Balls) is perhaps my favourite work here. Ai had no idea what they were at first, but it turns out they are cannonballs made a thousand years ago, during the Song dynasty.

These are hand-crafted, and made of a high-quality porcelain. There are thousands of them, an they look beautiful, but they were intended to be deadly.

These floor displays dominate the room, but the photography and video instillations are also interesting. There are dragons made from identical and cheaply-made backpacks, videos of the rapid destruction of housing across China.

There are also photographs Ai took of the surroundings of his “Birds Nest” stadium, built for the 2008 Olympics, and a vector of displacement, national propaganda and gentrification on a par with London’s efforts four years’ later. Ai has since distanced himself from the work.

I’m glad, though, that he acknowledges it. Just as I’m glad that he’s kept all this stuff. A lot here, in other hands, would simply be junk.

Instead, staring at thousands of broken spouts, discarded hundreds of years ago by frustrated teapot artisans, the fragile right to speak out is subtly referenced. And as such, this is an exhibition that will linger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s