he school girl sitting on a wooden bench, busy crocheting a small length would appear awkward at any other art exhibition, but not next to Ai Weiwei’s installation, Untitled: Porcelain Balls, (2002) – a large rectangle on the gallery floor, consisting of more than 200,000 porcelain spheres, and looking like a patch of woven tapestry. It is composed of delicate and precious hand-made pieces – actually the cannonballs from the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE). Three other installations, Still Life (1993-2000), Spouts (2015) and Left Right Studio Material (2018), of identical measurement are also spread at the same space.
These, part of Ai Weiwei’s exhibition Making Sense (April7-July30) at the Design Museum, London, along with other installations, sculptures, videos, photographic prints, reaffirm his position as an activist, besides being an artist, filmmaker, architect and collector. The show was an act of making sense of natural and political catastrophes of the world, as well as of objects that archive the collective psyche, commodification and commercialism – hence control.
Control by the state, the pressure of the past, the power of the market and the proliferation of ordinary products in our environment are a few themes the Chinese-born international-contemporary artist has been addressing and not only at the Design Museum (“the first to present Ai’s work as a commentary on design and what it reveals about our changing values”). His career is spread over several decades.
In his practice, every action –like collecting - becomes aesthetical, ethical and political. The exhibition includes tools the artist “found them cheaply available in flea markets”, dating back to the late stone age (Still Life). Also there were more than 250,000 porcelain spouts “crafted by hand during the Song dynasty, 960-1279 CE” (Spouts); wood columns belonging to the Qing dynasty, 1644-1911 CE, (Through); and a jade axe from the Neolithic era. In his art, collecting is not a craze; it is a comment on the tradition, and all that it entails including the burden of history. The big question and dilemma is what to do with the heritage in the age of post-modernism. Ai Weiwei decided to cover a Han dynasty urn (206 BCE–220 CE) with the logo of Coca-Cola, a symbol/ sign that could reach and be understood beyond cultures, regions, languages, faiths and economies.
By putting a corporate logo, Ai transformed the historic artefact, echoing the way Marcel Duchamp converted an industrial urinal into a work of art by signing it as R Mutt (Fountain, 1917). “Ai has credited Duchamp as one of his greatest influences”; and paid homage to him by stretching a common wire hanger to resemble the profile of the French master (Hanging Man, 2009). By changing material in a number of other works, Ai has infused new meanings, relevance and perspectives. Like the big toilet paper role manufactured in marble (Pendant, 2021); a cloth hanger produced in wood, stainless steel and crystal glass; and Styrofoam takeaway food container made in stone. The shift in material invites us to focus on something as mundane as a disposable bathroom role, a cheap coat hanger, a throwaway food packing. These are things of daily use that acquired a greater significance and value during the Covid-19 pandemic. These are objects as low in the stratum of commercial goods, as refugees are in the social hierarchy. Ai Weiwei has created two large wall installations; one by joining bags (Backpack Snake, 2008), and other of life saving vests (Life Vest Snake, 2019). These works are “dedicated to the victims of the refugee crisis in Europe and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China”. Replicating a Chinese whisper, these sculptures are interlocked in the form of a snake, which apart from representing the Chinese zodiac sign, may allude to the species in biblical paradise instrumental in the displacement of first human beings - Adam and Eve.
Ai Weiwei has created two large wall installations; one by joining bags (Backpack Snake, 2008), and the other of life saving vests (Life Vest Snake, 2019). The works are “dedicated to the victims of the refugee crisis in Europe and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China”.
As has been recently observed, refugees often perish in the sea, like the victims of natural disasters, for example an earthquake. Ai Weiwei has constructed coffin-like sculptures in wood (Rebar and Case, 2012) in the memory of children trapped in a school during the 2008 quake that claimed more than 90,000 lives. Intriguingly, these wooden structures are not regularly straight mortuary boxes. Instead, these are twisted, tilted and bent – reminding one of the pictures of another calamity, of skeletons at the archaeological sight of Mohen jo Daro, those trying to flee or resist who were eliminated by the invaders. Thus their last postures became eternal. Possibly some of the bodies unearthed from the rubble of 2008 earthquake were found in similar positions, in their instantaneous death.
Many artists have a fascination with mortality, but in the case of Ai Weiwei, it has gone beyond a mere subject. It is a critical and crucial concern. Physical extinction can be caused by a clinical cause or a threat from a totalitarian state. Amid this period of cultural cleansing, Ai Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing, the great poet, “was forced to work daily cleaning the communal toilets for his village of about 200 people”. Years later, Ai was arrested on April 3, 2011 and detained for 81 days. Handcuffs forged in jade (2011) and wood (2015) refer to that period/ experience. They also suggest how altering a small detail could defuse the authority of a tyrannical structure/ system.
However, Ai Weiwei recognises that in this age of liberal democracies, the evil is not a traditional despot but contemporary market forces that colonise countries and communities in the name of progress, trends and needs; leaving a huge trash as their eco-footfall. The neo-imperialist economies, signified by the venues of dominance, are exploiting public across continents. Ai Weiwei, in his Study of Perspective (2002), displayed a set of 12 photographs with pictures of the artist’s hand in front of various sites –from the Tiananmen Square to Trump Tower, the White House, the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum, the House of Parliament and such others. Artists drawing from observation usually calculate accurate distance with an outstretched hand holding a paintbrush or pencil. Ai, incorporating this conventional exercise, turned it upside down, since in every photograph, he, more than measuring the view, is giving it his middle finger.
Ai Weiwei realises that today we may not have many traditional autocrats, but we are doomed by multinational corporations, those producing industrial waste, plastic. If on the one level he redefines the existence, role, destiny of domestic items and archaeological finds, he also accumulates a popular product to fabricate a grand narrative.
Ai has manipulated Lego pieces to comment upon the link between the late 19th Century modernity and the industrialisation. Appropriating Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, Ai Weiwei by arranging thousands of Lego bricks has disseminated a sensation of water lilies, but the image also “replicates the underground dugout where Ai and his father, Ai Qing, lived in the forced exile in the 1960s”. It is just incredible how Ai Weiwei blends the two realities, actual that he and his father had to face, and the one that the French impressionist rendered (of his carefully designed garden). From a distance, innumerable tiny pieces morph into large and loosely applied brush strokes by a painter with dimming eyesight.
Reality may fade due to physical/ optical failure, but Ai Weiwei asserts that today’s reality may seem impulsive, temporary, disarrayed, yet it can contribute in forming a new version of the past, using “a depersonalised language of industrial parts and colours”. His Water Lilies#1 (2022) is as painterly as his French predecessor’s; while confirming that each stroke, mark, daub, and act is already manufactured; either in China, or somewhere else.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.