Twenty Years of Tate Modern, UK: Delving into the past, the present and the future
by John JervisMay 11, 2020
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Apr 08, 2023
“We are presenting his work as an artist with a view on design”, states Justin McGuirk, Chief Curator at the Design Museum, on the fluid disciplinary mobility of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s work, crossing over into the domain of design yet activating its nebulous threshold with art. A range of his works across different mediums, old and new, populate the venue’s grounds, atrium, and gallery in Kensington, London. It is, as is rightly billed by the Design Museum, a ‘takeover’ in the most urgent sense of the word. The sheer quantum of Weiwei’s works here, reflecting on a history of making - by hand and industry, on land, in studios, or in the urban realm itself, presented as art, architecture, design, film, or curation - all spiced with his trademark cultural activism, grips the viewer much before the specificity of the works.
From the giant two-meter-tall toilet paper sculpture in the entrance court reflecting on the importance of everyday things in the light of the COVID-19 crisis, to the smallest chipping block from stone age tools Ai picked up at a flee market in China, Weiwei’s ‘takeover’ canvases every square foot available - on the ground, across the walls, out in the open and along the building’s vertical volume - every turn marked by Weiwei’s objects, collected, created, crafted, transfigured. The spatial jamming, itself perhaps a comment on the state of the world we live in as the rest of his works on display, is seemingly meant to both impede, excite, and instinctively map a spatial route through the bulk of displays. “He is just a human being with ideas”, remarks McGuirk in conversation with STIR on the occasion of a preview of the exhibition, describing the futility of medium when it comes to making - especially for Weiwei.
The exhibition, Making Sense, implies accumulation and congregation: many smaller, seemingly insignificant parts coming together to create a civilisational codex on design perhaps. “Making sense” then is both an invitation and provocation, to both come together and to question the intersection between what we term everyday objects, and the adage “everything is designed”, alluding to an “everyday design” perhaps. This philosophical proponent is best represented and driven forth by his five ‘fields’ of assembled objects since the 1990s, imprinted on the ground of the gallery, appearing like glyphic, patterned readings. The ‘fields’ are laid out intricately, mathematically even - one between each corresponding row of columns in the gallery - almost akin to a neatly laid out plantation or strictly demarcated public land. It is not to be merely seen, but read.
The first field, Still Life, comprises over 4,000 exquisite tools, including axe heads, chisels, knives, spearheads, and other iterative stone carves dating from the late Stone Age, laid side-by-side as a vast, sequential reminder of our history with design, and of design as rather instinctive, as “rooted in survival”. Weiwei’s fascination with artefacts and objects of human craftsmanship is visible in these fields, but more so here, as the range of stones seems to be laid out in ascension, from the smallest to the largest, from nearly two dimensional to outright massive, imparts a wonderfully progressional quality to the ‘tools’ through the extrusion. The next one assumes a more mournful tone, a uniformly risen heap of broken porcelain sculptures left in the wake of the demolition of his ‘Left Right’ studio in Beijing at the hands of the Chinese government in 2018. Left Right Studio Material is uniquely sculptural, even if composed of fragments of utilitarian design objects, and is a testament to Ai’s continuing activism against governmental oppression, censorship, and his ability to make something of beauty from wanton, state-sponsored destruction.
Probably the most interesting of the lot, Spouts is composed of over 250,000 porcelain spouts broken off from handcrafted teapots or wine ewers produced during the Song dynasty reign after they were deemed ‘imperfect’. While the immense quantity assembled and plateaued here is a testament to the scale of porcelain production in China close to a thousand years ago, it also alludes to the kind of painstaking perfectionism that was striven in handicrafts in the global East, and the residue left behind in the pursuit of a perfect design or its elevation to art. Alternating in colour and pattern, and carefully arranged hip to hip so as to render the illusion of a tapestry almost, around 200,000 porcelain canon balls form Weiwei’s yet untitled display - the fourth field - send home the idea of an object of delicate design and formation, the porcelain ball itself, undergoing a metamorphosis of function in the hands of a different user. Rounding out the display, the fifth field, also untitled yet, sees Weiwei continue his obsession with Lego blocks as a material produced on an industrial scale but being machine-made as opposed to handcrafted. This field is defined by a distinct spontaneity and disordered heterogeneity, accompanied by a distinct verticality activated by an array of intersecting wooden columns and beams, propped on the ground through similarly arranged tables and other furniture. When asked about the multitudes of materials and objects in the fields, McGuirk especially commented on “the sheer scale of things that were made by people’s hands at different times in history”, stating them to be “often very forgettable things on their own, but extremely powerful when put together at this scale”. He continued, “any one of these stone axe heads or spindles or chisels could be a museum piece with a label, but Weiwei is presenting more than four thousand of them to you as a field, on a floor. He is not presenting them as unique things - it’s almost more like a geological layer of lost history.”
Working on and building from similar tensions between past and present, hand-made and machine-made, creation and destruction, Weiwei presents, in conjunction with the fields, an array of works that have a distinctively architectonic nature. These include a series of photographs and videographic documentation of the scale of both the construction and development boom in China in its race to be a global superpower and the demolition left in its wake. Particularly iconic and noteworthy is a photograph of the Bird’s Nest, the Beijing National Stadium, against a desolate landscape, propping up the question of the architectural image and the developmental prerogative it propagates. The photographs and films are intended to serve as “questions about aesthetic sensibilities that have been lost with modernisation” - a critical gaze that could still be cast on most contemporary architecture in China. The second series of works that foregrounds his activism against an architectural backdrop is the rather famous Study of Perspective. ‘Architecture’ here bypasses Ai’s constructional critique and instead is used to refer to places of a significant cultural, political, social and public degree of power. Presented as a set of pigment prints in the show, the series sees Weiwei flipping the finger to significant iconic landmarks around the world including Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Trump Tower in NYC, and even the Westminster Palace here in London, as a subversion of the classical ‘perspective’ in art. Architectural memory and tradition are evoked in Coloured House, the soaring timber frame of a house packed inside the atrium of the Design Museum. The motif-laden structural frame, taken from the house of a prosperous family in Zhejiang province, is painted in bright colours and propped up on crystal spheres, an interesting shift in views on conservation and restoration in architecture.
“Today, all I can do is pick up the scattered fragments left after the storm and try to piece together a picture, however incomplete it may be.”
Ai takes on a more experimental paradigm in his spare, ‘ordinary’ objects, peppered throughout the gallery as interstitial narratives in between the bigger pieces. Described as “transforming something useful into something useless but valuable”, Weiwei here enshrines everyday objects of design in precious materials, elevating them into artefacts. These include a worker’s hard hat cast in glass which becomes at once strong and fragile, and a sculpture of an iPhone that has been cut out of a jade axe head, the latter described by McGuirk as a thematic encapsulation of the entire exhibition. Worthy of particular mention here is the two serpentine assemblies buttressing and framing the middle field of display; one formed from a plethora of life jackets, and the other from children’s rucksacks, as a representation of the uncertainties of the refugee crises worldwide, with particular concentration in Europe.
The spatially incentivised pièce de résistance of the exhibition is Weiwei’s canvas of Lego blocks recreating Monet’s iconic Water Lilies. Titled Water Lilies #1, the work debuts occupying an entire wall of the Design Museum gallery with over 650,000 Lego bricks, spread over 15m and brought alive in 22 colours, appearing to further pixelate the impressionist series of paintings. The attempt here is to depersonalise and taint the idyllic landscape and provoke the ‘natural’ and sublime through what is a factory-produced object of mass consumption, thus inevitably placing industrial and technological production at the centre of contemporary life - whether we like it or not. The dark chasm towards the right of the work further disrupts the supposed tranquillity of the scene - a metaphysical portal to the underground dugout where Ai and his father spent most of the 1960s in forced exile. “Their hellish desert home punctures the watery paradise”, an official release states.
Closing out the preview, McGuirk summarises the showcase and his conversation with STIR, stating, “What this show reminds us is that with innovation, we also lose certain values along the way. One forgets histories and aesthetic sensibilities. I think there’s clearly an interesting craftsmanship in this room that shows how we have become very divorced with the way things are made. This brings us right back - down to earth in a way. It reminds you to be very alive to the moment you live in.”
Ai Weiwei: Making Sense stays on display at the Design Museum, London, until July 30, 2023. Meanwhile, the longevous pursuit of “making sense” of seemingly ordinary things and their aggregations emanating from Weiwei’s fields continues at the Design Museum through a series of stimulating talks and workshops, including On Collecting: Sense and Sensibility with Nusrat Ahmed, Rose LeJeune, and Samta Nadeem on 9 May 2023.
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