Reviews of Ai Weiwei's solo exhibition 'Making Sense' at the Design Museum, London
14 April 2023
'Ai Weiwei: Making Sense' is on view from 7 April to 30 July 2023, and is the artist's first exhibition focusing on design, mixing recent works with commissioned pieces, and inviting us into a meditation on value and humanity, art and activism. This major exhibition, developed in collaboration with the artist, is the first to present his work as a commentary on design and what it reveals about our changing values. Through his engagement with material culture, Ai explores the tension between past and present, hand and machine, precious and worthless, construction and destruction.
Critic Rowan Moore writes in The Guardian:
The compressed anger of these pieces, and their evocation of vanished and unseen lives, pervades the exhibition. People are mostly not visible in the show, except in videos and photographs by Ai of Beijing 20 or more years ago – a fight in a flea market; a 150-hour tour from 2003 of the narrow streets and alleys that were about to be swept away by redevelopment. Instead, there are hundreds of thousands of artefacts, each of which recalls the hands that made them, the hands that used them, and the bodies pierced, nurtured and otherwise served by the objects of war, work, hygiene and pleasure on display.
It’s fair to ask why Ai, primarily an artist, should be exhibiting in a museum of design – of graphics and furniture and practical objects – but the question is answered by the installation: its subject is the human significance of things made and of use, which is definitely relevant to design. A multitude of lives are present in the room, but most of what you see are things. And alongside the glimpses of horror there are also playfulness and delight.
The display occupies a large single space, the partitions that usually subdivide it having been removed, whose floor is mostly taken up with five rectangular fields of stuff. One is made of 4,000 stone tools from the neolithic period, the next of 250,000 spouts broken from teapots and ewers deemed to be imperfect in the porcelain factories of the Song dynasty, approximately a millennium ago. Next are 200,000 handmade porcelain balls from the same period, used as ammunition in the artillery of the time.
These installations manifest prodigious feats of collecting and storage by Ai, who discovered vast numbers of antique objects going cheap in flea markets, and otherwise accumulated troves of forgotten fragments. Next to the balls comes an oblong of chunky blue-glazed porcelain shards, the remains of his own sculptures that were destroyed when the Chinese state demolished his Beijing studio in 2018. The last field is made of Lego bricks, sent in by members of the public when the Lego company briefly stopped selling them to Ai, who was using them to make portraits of political prisoners.
Taken together, these five fields give material form to questions of value and use. The stone tools, thousands of years old, occupy the same space as mass-produced children’s building bricks. What was once rubbish, the spouts, have been made venerable by the passage of time, albeit not so much that they are given usual museological levels of respect. Their unguarded arrangement on the floor makes it likely that some will be displaced by straying feet, visitors being another kind of human presence that the objects bring into the space.
Read the full review by Rowan Moore in The Guardian here.
The presentation has been accompanied by reviews and interviews with the artist in publications internationally, including:
BBC Radio 4
Ai Weiwei and design values
The Evening Standard
Ai Weiwei at the Design Museum: “We’re building a society on greed and selfishness”
The Irish Times
Ai Weiwei goes big for design-focused London exhibition
Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, The Design Museum, review ★★★★★
Things to do in London this weekend
The Straits Times
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei goes big for design-focused London exhibition