Ai Weiwei: Making Sense of Sense-Making

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense of Sense-Making
The Tao that can be told, is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named, is not the eternal Name.

Ai Qing (Ai Weiwei’s father) was one of the most influential poets of 20th century China. Opening with a poem on The Ruins At Jiaohe, Ai Junior tackles many of the same subjects through visual media. His latest exhibition at the Design Museum London is titled Making Sense.

A journey through the exhibition’s categorical themes spread across one room – Evidence, The Everyday, Construction and Destruction – forces us to re-evaluate truth, authenticity and value through contextual craftsmanship; Reflecting attitudes to globalisation and the notion of ‘progress’, the layout is circular and non-linear.

The exhibit featured a few recycled pieces from Ai’s previous exhibition in 2021, The Liberty of Doubt, which also juxtaposed historical Chinese objects with his own works. Many of the antiquities were acquired by Ai at an auction in Cambridge in 2020. He identified a few as original, including some from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534 CE), and others as ‘fakes’, though they remain difficult to confirm.

A formal authentication process is normally a matter of opinion and object comparison, involving the combined judgements of curators and historians – constructing a consensus and comparative truth. Rendered with minute attention to detail, many replicas can only be identified as ‘fakes’ using radio-carbon dating.

As Ai notes, however, there is a long-standing tradition of fluid, less fixed, views in relation to authenticity – often appreciating the act of high-quality copying for an alternate set of values, including those that are not restricted by exclusivity and the idea of originality. Through his work, Ai considers the interesting position of a ‘Communist’ China, within the contemporary ‘Capitalist’ consumer landscape – whether aesthetic, cultural, political or financial.

The exhibit was funded by the Reuben Foundation and CQS.


The Evidence

Over the last 30 years China has experienced urban development on a scale never seen before. As the old world is swept away, Ai has adopted an obsessive fascination with Chinese antiquities, becoming an avid collector.

In Spouts (2015) a porcelain graveyard of ancient teapot spouts – delicate mouths removed from unseen bodies of work – silently speaks to lost sensibilities amidst a world of limitless production and consumerism. Crafted by hand during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), if a pot did not adhere to production standards, its spout was broken off. The quantity here attests to the scale of porcelain production in China, even 1000 years ago.

By its side, Remains (2015) features precious and fragile porcelain bones – replicas of human remnants excavated at a labour camp in operation in the late 1950s under Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Thousands of intellectuals, including Ai’s father, were exiled or killed during the purges of this period.

Laid out across the gallery floor are five ‘fields’ of objects amassed since the 90s. When Ai started collecting, China was a nation focused on the future and in thrall to development. As such, historical artefacts were often deemed to be of little value; yet here they re-tell a story of thousands of years of human ingenuity.

China has a unique history of mass production by hand, and so the impact of some of these fields lies in the fact that they pre-date the machine-led Industrial Revolution; Evidence of bygone civilisations, lost crafts, and forgotten cultural contexts. In their sheer number, they also allude to a central aspect of Ai’s work: the repression of the individual under the banner of a ‘united front’.


“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.”


When Ai first encountered the porcelain balls of Untitled (2022) he had no idea what they were. It transpired that they were cannonballs made during the Song Dynasty using Xing ware – a high quality porcelain. Ai was struck by the fact that this precious and seemingly delicate material was once valued for use in weapons of war. There are over 200,000 here, making it hard to comprehend that they were handmade.

Testing the limits of porcelain craftsmanship himself, the reflective deep blue surface of Bubble (2008) is the largest sphere it is possible to make in porcelain, without it cracking in the kiln. The fragments of Left Right Studio Material (2018) are the remains of Ai’s porcelain sculptures that were destroyed after his ‘Left Right’ studio in Beijing was demolished by the Chinese state; a living testament to Ai’s legacy – the artful alchemy of transmuting destruction into peaceful protest.

After 12 years in the United States, Ai returned to Beijing with a fresh curiosity in Chinese history, involving visits to many of the capital’s flea markets with his brother. In the Still Life field (1993 – 2000) are tools dating from the late Stone Age: axe-heads, chisels, knives, and spindle whorls which remind us that the origins of design are rooted in survival. Over 4,000 are perfectly aligned side by side, like a geological layer of forgotten history.

This is contrasted with the craft of today, represented by the iPhone Cutout (2015); A technology replica that has been cut out of a jade hand-axe from the Neolithic era. One of the implications is that modern technology is rooted in our early craft know-how. Yet there are jade knives in Ai’s collection that no one knows how to make anymore, symbolising that with every advancement, something is lost.

A ‘knock-off’ of sorts made in a high-value material, the cut-out holds a permanence that challenges smartphone culture, where consumers participate in a wasteful cycle of upgrading hardware to support the latest software – things are no longer made to last. ‘Luxury’ has become more accessible than ever, but at what cost?

As a modular building system, the Lego bricks in Untitled Lego Incident (2014) serves as a metaphor for the speed and repetitiveness of recent rates of progress. Like other objects in these fields, it is produced on an industrial scale, though machine-made as opposed to hand-crafted. Ai started working with this material in 2014, producing portraits of political prisoners. When Lego briefly stopped selling to him as a result, his response on social media led to overwhelming donations of bricks from the public. Ai often uses Lego to construct images because it is an objective kit of parts, removing traces of the artist’s hand that rely more heavily on skill or taste.


Construction and Destruction

Ai has been both a beneficiary and a victim of the cycle of creative destruction. He has designed dozens of buildings, including his own studio complexes in Beijing and Shanghai – both of which were destroyed by the state as punishment for his political activism. Yet he also worked on the designs for the National Stadium: the symbol of a newly powerful China during the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

In this section of Ai’s body of work, he documented the changing face of Beijing through photographs and video. He also acquired temples and houses that would have been demolished – not to preserve them, but to present them as reconfigured ruins that highlight a world in flux. In doing so, he invites us to explore the ways in which our prevailing value systems construct the world, and in turn, to re-imagine what landscapes we desire.


“I was also recording the demolitions, the perpetual upheavals and ruinations that accompanied the urbanisation process… I began to see these acts of documentation as essential to my life not only as an artist, but as a citizen.”


It’s said that the only way out is Through (2007); a wood carving courtesy of the Lisson Gallery, Through combines the columns of a Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911 CE) temple with tables from the same period, bringing architecture and furniture together in a complex macro-micro structure. In Chinese, furniture-making is known as ‘small carpentry’, and architecture is ‘big carpentry’. Destruction signifies the starting point of construction: a ruin becomes a new ensemble. A pool of colour from Untitled Lego Incident (above) lies beneath its enclave.

Behind Through, a wall of Water Lilies (2022) crafted from Lego Bricks is a replica of the famous painting by French Impressionist Claude Monet. The largest Lego work Ai has ever created, there is a personal modification in the lower right corner – a dark portal, and the door to the underground dugout in Xinjiang province, where Ai and his father lived in exile in the 60s.

Monet’s lily pond at Giverny can be seen as a portrait of nature, but it is also a construct – an idealised landscape that he himself designed. In Ai’s version, dark memories of a barren desert hideout puncture this watery grave. And the Lego bricks have replaced artisanal brushstrokes with a depersonalised language of industrial parts and shades.

Beside this stands Rebar and Case (2012) made of wood, marble and foam. More than 90,000 peopled died in the 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province. Ai was deeply affected by the fact that many of these were children, trapped in collapsing school buildings; Corruption was flagged as a source of sub-standard construction. From the rubble, Ai took some of the twisted steel rebar used to reinforce the concrete, and had replicas made in marble. Here, they have become commemorative sculptures on coffin-like plinths.

The names of 5,197 schoolchildren who died in the earthquake feature in Nian Nian Souvenir (2021), a graphic monument using ink and paper. To Ai, the significance of design often lies in its potential to give form to memories and experiences. He identified many of the names by organising a volunteer-led investigation, and each one has been stamped in an ancient script, using a hand-carved jade seal.

In Ai’s exhibition on The Liberty of Doubt, he included an image on a plate featuring an MRI of his brain. It showed a heavy amount of inflation, as a consequence of state police violence. At the time of the attack, Ai had travelled to Chengdu to testify at the trial of Tan Zuoren, who had investigated the collapse of the schools in the Sichuan earthquake, and was charged with ‘inciting subversion of state power’. Ai was prevented from leaving China until after the trial and was attacked by several policemen, which caused a cerebral haemorrhage and required emergency brain surgery.

Another tragedy is memorialised in Cabinet (2014). In 2012, five boys in Guizhou province in southwest China took shelter from the cold in a rubbish container, lit a fire, and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Ai’s sculpture replicates that container, using a hardwood traditionally reserved for the finest furniture.

Scaling the backwalls of this section are Backpack Snake (2008) and Life Vest Snake (2019) – these pieces are among several works dedicated to the victims of the refugee crisis in Europe and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China. A motif for the complex and unpredictable nature of man-made and natural disasters, these objects are re-assembled to draw attention to society’s most disempowered casualties.

Beneath them are hours of footage of the changing landscape of Beijing. In the early 2000s, Ai was invited to teach an architecture course at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Renting a bus for 16 days, he asked his students to film the city as they drove through every hutong (narrow alley) and street. The result is this monumental record of a city that has since vanished.

In Study of Perspective (2022) using pigment prints on canvas, Power – as embodied by culturally and politically significant sites – is Ai’s target of this longstanding series. Begun in 1995 as a series of photographs of famous establishments such as the White House, Ai rejects the expectation that these institutions should be respected or revered by flipping them off. This is reflected in the use of pigment prints, which are seen as the most graphic language of design, and subvert the traditional artistic method of measuring perspective.

Photographic prints of Ai’s work on the National Stadium (2005) are also included, although they mention that he distanced himself from it after its completion, not wishing to become a tool of government propaganda during the Olympics. Ai worked on the design of the Bird’s Nest with the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. But he also photographed most of the construction process, capturing the hidden labour of the tens of thousands of largely rural migrant workers.

The second set of photographic prints provides a glimpse into Provisional Landscapes (2002), capturing the empty spaces left by demolitions, as Chinese cities underwent unprecedented waves of development. Hundreds of void spaces are evidence of the erasure of urban fabric in the name of progress – but they also document the aftermath of the often violent processes by which the state confiscated land from landowners, in pursuit of high-speed economic growth.


Ordinary Things 

Found objects – ordinary, often disposable things, made of plastic or polystyrene – embody the most everyday and intangible type of design. Using precious materials, Ai then transforms something useful but worthless, into something useless but valuable; asking us to assess its context. Is a takeaway container carved in marble a critique of consumerist society, or a monument to the daily sustenance of millions?

‘When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.’ There are many underlying tensions that animate these works; elevating everyday objects into artworks. Ai also works with traditional Chinese craftspeople – masters of jade, porcelain and marble – and seeks to keep their centuries-old skills alive.


“By changing the meaning of the object, shaking its foundations, we are also changing our own condition. We can question what we are.”


Hanging Man (2009) is a homage to Marcel Duchamp – a wire coat hanger that has been bent into the late artists’ profile. Ai has credited Duchamp as one of his greatest influences; the daring use of ‘ready-made’ art, and a twisted subversion of an object’s function and meaning, are echoed in many of the galleries pieces.

When Ai returned to China in 1993, he was met with questions from young artists – who, in a climate of government censorship and a near total lack of access to foreign art books, exhibition catalogues, and art magazines – were eager for information about contemporary art. With artists Xu Bing, Feng Boyi and the Zeng Xiaojun, Ai produced the Black Cover Book (1994), which included reproductions of iconic 20th century artworks by Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons, among others, as well as translations of existing art-historical and critical texts, artists’ submissions and essays.

Xu and Feng later dropped out of the project because the publication of the Black Cover Book was looked into by the state security police and posed immediate danger. The White Cover Book (1995) and the Grey Cover Book (1997) feature more politically-oriented content, including works by contemporary Chinese artists and interviews with Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. 3000 copies of each book were published, quickly spreading throughout China without any official system of distribution. The books were “a means of communicating art conceptually and literally,” Ai Weiwei explained, and their dissemination underscored the presence of a large underground artists’ network in China.

Beside Hanging Man is a cabinet containing Glass Helmet (2022) and Marble Foam (2018) which renders a hard-hat fragile, and turns shapely styrene stiff – an automatic role-reversal through material substitution. This is mimicked in Marble Takeout Box (2015), Marble Toilet Paper (2020), and Glass Toilet Paper (2022). Toilet paper and Styrofoam takeaway boxes represent the disposable culture that has shaped modern lives.

However the surreal scarcity of toilet paper in the UK during the COVID pandemic, was driven by the hoarding of such items. Symbolic of this time of panic and distrust, it also exposed our dependency on the often overlooked. When Ai was growing up in China, toilet paper was considered a luxury – emphasising how the value of objects can change substantially over varying periods of time. It lays bare how fragile our so-called civilized progress actually is. The work is part of a larger series in marble – recreating items which are essential to daily life, yet ignored by the cultural landscape. These works, including Mask (2013), Surveillance Camera with Plinth (2014) and Tyre (2017), are testaments to our time.

Coronation is a documentary film about the lockdown in Wuhan, China, during the pandemic. Ai remotely directed and produced the film from Europe, and the filming was done by ordinary citizens living in Wuhan. On December 1, 2019, the first patient with Covid-19 symptoms was identified in Wuhan. Chinese officials repeatedly denied that human-to-human transmission was possible, concealed the number of diagnosed patients, and punished medical staff for disclosing information about the epidemic.

On January 23, 2020, Wuhan was placed under a city-wide lockdown. Through the lens of the pandemic, Coronation depicts the Chinese state crisis management and social control machine – through surveillance, ideological brainwashing, and brute determination to control every aspect of society. The film illustrates the changes that took place in the city and in individual spaces under the impact of the virus. It highlights the value of human life in the political sphere, and reflects on the difficulties we face as individuals and countries in the context of globalisation – with an increasing lack of trust and transparency, despite heightened connection and monitoring.

The styrofoam takeout box is the most ubiquitous takeaway container in China, the most populous nation in the world. Although the work is a mark of the present state of globalisation, the price China pays with regards to the health of its citizens, through the exploitation of cheap labour, lack of protections for workers, and environmental destruction, is a constant. Whereas China produced the highest quality porcelain in the past, this has been replaced by indestructible styrofoam.

Ai has previously commented on the cyclical nature of such change through the use of plates, featuring images inspired by the ancient Greek story of The Odyssey. Ai draws a correlation between the journey undertaken by Odysseus, a soldier who embarked on a treacherous 10 year journey home after the Trojan War, and the ongoing global refugee crisis. The plates show six themes: War, Ruins, the Journey, Crossing the Sea, Refugee Camps, and Demonstrations. The plates use the language of traditional blue-and-white porcelain, while also referring to early Greek and Egyptian carvings and pottery. Their contemporary status is revealed upon closer inspection, with imagery sourced from the internet and the artist’s own experiences while filming the documentary feature, Human Flow (2017).

Another cabinet features Cosmetics (2013) and Sex Toy (2014). Both are made of Jade, a material known in China for its value, durability, and subtlety. It is also associated with scholarly and cultural refinement. These pieces ask us to consider both our superficial and deeper perspectives of beauty, truth and desire – what do we associate with them? And how durable do these prove to be in the face of intimacy, love and life?

An everyday Hanger (2011, 2012, 2013) is recreated in wood, stainless steel, and crystal glass – becoming increasingly sculptural, or unexpectedly refined. The hanger is a symbolic object for Ai, being one of the few possessions he was permitted during his detention by Chinese authorities for 81 days in 2011. Like the nearby Handcuffs (2011, 2015) carved of jade and wood, they reflect larger themes of domestic and public freedoms – of speech, incarceration and surveillance.

Finally, a striking Han Dynasty Urn With Coca-Cola Logo (2014) rounds off the exhibition, being located by the exit. Using Earthenware from 206 BCE, masked by bright scarlet paint, Ai collides seemingly opposing timeframes, cultures and value-systems. A vessel of ancient craftsmanship is decorated by one tale, using the most widely recognised symbol of ‘value’ today: mass-produced branding.

In 1995, Ai Weiwei intentionally dropped a Han Dynasty urn while being photographed – a modern model of creative destruction and disruption. This work drew attention to ideas of legacy, the replacement of the physical with the digital, and the recycling of history. It also demonstrates our innate tendency to overlay the past with the lenses of the present. The action was originally captured as a triptych, and was later recreated in Lego, as an act of careful, ‘objective’ reconstruction. While centuries old, many thousands of these ancient urns have survived into the present day.


The Maybe Art Shop

As you leave the gallery, you are welcomed into a commercial microcosm of the exhibition – featuring extortionately priced glass and marble toilet rolls, various bits of jewellery, books on Mao Zedong, the Animal That Looks Like A Llama But Is Really An Alpaca wallpaper, and marble sofas. Crafted in collaboration with the Design Museum and Maybe Art.

In his signature style, replicated across jade, marble and porcelain, Ai continues to explore contemporary issues, by drawing on his life story to transform familiar finds into iconography and controversy; Powerfully addressing and re-assessing current concerns, he reflects upon the liberties we hold to express doubt and challenge authority – a freedom crucial to the vitality of culture, and the achievement of meaningful political and personal change.

In 2000, Ai Weiwei and co-curator Feng Boyi organised an independent exhibition titled ‘Fuck Off’ in Shanghai. The exhibition ran alongside the Third Shanghai Biennale and featured the work of 46 contemporary artists from China. Its curator’s statement described the exhibition as emphasising “the independent and critical stance that is basic to art’s existence, and its status of independence, freedom and plurality in the situation of contradictions and conflicts.”