From making to middle fingers

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense at the Design Museum, London

Ai Weiwei at the Design Museum, September 2022. © Rick Pushinsky for the Design Museum

Among the publicity surrounding Ai Weiwei’s latest exhibition in London (7 April – 30 July 2023), a particularly striking image is of him standing at the entrance, next to the sign saying ‘Design Museum’, holding his middle finger up to it. Ever since the first in his Study of Perspective series, a photograph of Tiananmen Square with his middle finger raised against it in the foreground (1995), this defiant gesture has become his leitmotif, his brand image. Indeed, prior to this exhibition, Ai even launched an interactive online artwork (with Avant Arte) which would allow participants to raise his middle finger to any landmark in the world, or to download an image of it for their own use.

Making Sense includes a set of twelve pigment prints on canvas derived from photographs and made in 2022, which continue Study in Perspective but against different backdrops around the world. Apart from one in Tiananmen and one in Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, the rest are in the West: St Mark’s Square, the Colosseum, the Houses of Parliament, the Reichstag, the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa, central Bern, the White House, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Trump Tower. In their heightened colour contrasts and repetitiveness, they evoke Andy Warhol’s Marilyn series. There is also variation in the setup. The position of the finger changes, as does the focus; sometimes there is a watch or sleeve on the wrist. These subtle changes seem to turn the finger into a personality of its own, a recalcitrant spectator of the bastions of culture, wealth and political power behind it. The prints could also be interpreted as types of ‘selfie’, whose subject is Ai’s response to the landmarks more than the landmarks themselves.

Ai Weiwei, Making Sense, Ed Reeve

On his Instagram feed, Ai describes the Perspective series as ‘a conversation about power I’ve been having for almost 20 years’. As he said in a recent interview, ‘free expression is essential for artists, or for human beings, but most people don’t really recognise that, or [don’t] know how to use it.’ While politics is in the background, however, aside from Perspective, the focus in Making Sense is more on the way in which the process of making has been revolutionised in the modern world, especially in China, when compared to its pre-industrial past.

Most of the exhibits are installed in a large, windowless, cuboid gallery in the basement of the museum. Spanning thirty years of Ai’s artistic development, they embody a sort of aesthetics of multiplicity, which engages with modern China’s drive to manufacture identical objects in enormous quantities at break-neck speed – and the human cost of doing so. On one wall, Backpack Snake (2008) and Life Vest Snake (2019), created out of tens of backpacks or life vests stitched together, refer to the perishing of, respectively, school children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and refugees crossing by sea. These works ask whether the lives of the victims were valued more highly by the world than their cheap, ‘throwaway’ belongings.

Across the floor, four groups of fragments of hand-made objects stretch like small fields from one side of the room to the other: 4,000 stone tools dating from the late Stone Age; 250,000 porcelain spouts from teapots and wine ewers from the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD); 200,000 cannonballs from the same era; and a similar quantity of fragments of porcelain sculptures from Ai’s Beijing studio and destroyed when it was demolished by the Chinese state in 2018. The tools and cannonballs, and even the shards of Ai’s own sculptures, are carefully arranged, evoking a respect for makers and skills that have disappeared, while the spouts suggest a graveyard of bones. The exhibition guide, by curators Justin McGuirk and Rachel Hajek, emphasises that Ai is not just an artist, but a ‘filmmaker, architect, activist, collector’. One of his major influences is Dadaism, and the repurposing of the ‘readymade’ object in an artistic context. This is alluded to in a humorous silhouette of Marcel Duchamp (Hanging Man, 2009), made by bending a wire clothes hanger.

At the opposite end of the room from Perspective is one of Ai’s fantastical constructions of furniture-architecture, consisting of Qing dynasty temple columns and tables, some with intricate carvings, that have been sawn into pieces and fitted back together at seemingly impossible angles. Through (2007-8) embodies the connection between furniture-making, known in Chinese

REDUCED RESOLUTION ©photo Ela Bialkowska OKNO studio

as ‘small carpentry’, and architecture, known as ‘big carpentry’. The structure extends from the floor to the open ceiling, where bare pipes and electrical cables seem to continue it in twenty-first century materials. On the floor beneath is a sea of unsorted Lego bricks, some still in their wrappers, and the occasional piece of Playmobil. The collection, Untitled (Lego Incident), 2014, dates from the first year in which Ai used Lego to make portraits of political prisoners.

Covering almost the entire wall behind Through is Water Lilies #1 (2022), a 15 metre-long picture in single coloured Lego bricks which recreates Monet’s Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond in deeper, more lurid colours, like the pixels on a computer screen. The artist’s largest work in Lego, it paradoxically uses mass production to create a near-exact replica of a handmade painting. It is dizzying to think of the tonnage of plastic involved – over 650,000 bricks – and the number of repetitions of the machine(s) that would have been involved in stamping out the same shape again and again. Towards the right-hand side, Ai has inserted a door, like a shadow, which alludes to the entrance to an underground dugout in Xinjiang, where he and his father lived in exile under Mao in the late 1960s.

Ai Weiwei, Marble Toilet Paper , 2020. © Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio

The exhibition also features four stark videos of Beijing’s motorways and endless construction works, which Ai filmed in 2005. Of Beijing: The Third Ring, he said in an interview (reprinted in Ai Weiwei Speaks, 2016) that the city, not the countryside, ‘is still the future of humanity…for the sake of efficiency and due to the extent of humanity’s craziness, people can’t live without the city.’ Both these aspects, efficiency and craziness, are present in Ai’s videos and photographs. Particularly striking is a sequence of twelve photographs charting the construction of the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing (National Stadium, 2005-7), which he designed for the 2008 Olympics in association with Herzog & de Meuron. From its deep foundations through acres of rubble and waste ground, the steel torso of the stadium with its criss-crossing struts seems to rise out of nothing.

The show also includes several small-scale exhibits in wood and glass cabinets. Some are commonplace disposable objects which have been replicated by Chinese craftspeople in precious or traditionally artistic materials: a sex toy (2014) in jade; a marble takeaway box (2015); rolls of toilet paper in marble (2020) and glass (2022); and an orange Glass Helmet (2022) resting precariously on a square of Marble Foam (2018). These banal forms stand as a poignant contrast to the simple elegance of the broken teapot spouts and other relics of a quieter, more personal past, which are rapidly disappearing as China modernises. As Ai Weiwei puts it: ‘All I can do is pick up the scattered fragments…and try to piece together a picture, however incomplete it may be.’

Emma Park
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