The London Design Museum presents the first exhibition by Ai Weiwei focused on the art of making and on human artifacts read as tools for understanding history, social change and cultural values

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense is the first exhibition of the well-known Chinese artist focused on design, scheduled at the London Design Museum from April 7 to July 30.

The works of Ai Weiwei always cross many fields and disciplines, from art to architecture, from design to cinema, from collecting to curating.

His transversal artistic experiences include the collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron for the Beijing stadium and with Norman Foster for the expansion of the Beijing airport. Ai Weiwei was also co-director of the Design section of the Gwangju Biennale in 2011.

Here he talks about the new challenges represented by the London exhibition, in which key concepts emerge for the artist such as the close link between design and craftsmanship with politics, society, work and ethics , and, again, the role and value of history, memory and tradition in our contemporaneity.

How was the project born and developed?

In my work I do not distinguish between categories such as art, architecture, design or writing. Rather, I see them as a collector of my own interpretation of events and reality happening around me.

While contemporary society may encourage such divisions, I prefer to see my work as a unified whole, to avoid being pigeonholed into a particular identity.

The concept of design has always been the subject of great reflection for me as it involves human action, the redefinition of ourselves and the language we use to express ourselves.

These questions are not only about design, but also about my artwork, my films, my writing and my social activities. There is always the question of redefinition.

Design is a topic that pervades all aspects of my life and I don't agree with the concept of “design for design's sake”.

The current exhibition takes place at the Design Museum in London and the challenge was to graft my thinking on human history and behavioral patterns into the modern conception of design which is usually quite limited and compartmentalised.

This challenge forced me to carefully consider the language used to express my thoughts, so that it corresponded to the behavior and the era in which I live.

The title Making Sense makes me think of Richard Sennett's original perspective on craftsmanship and its close links with work and ethical values...

This topic reflects a multifaceted approach to thinking. First it concerns the designation of our thought process through the creation of an object or a topic.

This effort dates back to ancient times, when people used religious rituals and practices to contemplate the complex interplay between human existence and the universe.

In essence, the first and last goal was to 'give meaning' to our existence and to articulate the reasons and forms that support it.

Come ‘usi’ il design e la storia del fare in questa mostra? Qual è il tuo approccio?

In questa mostra, utilizzo l’esistenza come prova o storia e come parte dell’estetica, dell’etica e della visione del mondo delle persone, per delineare le caratteristiche dell’esistenza umana.

Uso i resti della storia, che sono fortuiti ma significativi per le persone, e la loro grande quantità, l’ampio range temporale entro il quale si collocano li rendono tali da non poter essere messi in dubbio.

Includo anche eventi che sono avvenuti nelle mie attività sociali, che mi hanno naturalmente integrato in un brano della storia. Sono consapevole che il mio è solo una parte di tutto lo sforzo umano che non posso ribaltare.

A prescindere da quello che faccio, sarà comunque una prosecuzione di tale sforzo. In queste circostanze non sono preoccupato di fare qualcosa di sbagliato.

Enfatizzando le ‘prove’, io sono, infatti, esistente e non esistente. Molte delle mie opere d’arte stanno a cavallo tra queste due condizioni, cioè si trovano tra ‘con me’ e ‘senza di me’. Cerco di collegare questi due poli.

Can design and craftsmanship be political? How do they impact contemporary society?

Meaningful design must be intertwined with politics and inevitably reflect our attitudes towards life and our worldview. It must necessarily have an impact on how we redefine who we are.

The exhibition includes new works that explore different forms of making across the ages. Can you describe them to us?

Indeed, this exhibition takes into consideration a wide range of aspects: materials, evidence, banter about politics, photography, craftsmanship and the traditional language used in wood and architecture, as well as the production methods involved.

These methods have been subverted by social aspects and value systems, resulting in a complex and multifaceted existence that cannot easily be summed up in a single sentence.

However, the breadth of information, references to history and the reality represented by the exhibition all contribute to the distinctive character of the exhibition.

What does the passage of time mean? And why is this idea of ages so important?

To my mind, we are but a fleeting moment in the vast river of time. This moment is colored by the temperature and humidity of the river, as well as by the information it brings from what has passed and what flows through it.

Time is the essence of human life and our awareness of the past, present and future is what allows us to build our narrative.

It is this possibility that shapes our understanding of value and defines our sense of self.

The fulcrum of the exhibition are hundreds of thousands of objects collected and arranged in large 'fields'. When and how did you start collecting? And what does it mean for you?

For me, collecting is a process of reflection and dissolution, a way of moving myself away from a given equation, because existing language is usually broader than what any single explanation can capture.

Only when there is a harmonious identification can one contribute to the language of existence itself and, in doing so, become part of a larger humanitarian effort.

Collecting also means creating a taxonomy, giving things an order. Can collecting be a form of control or an expression of power?

Throughout history, collecting has reflected the personal interests of individuals and how they identify with the power to select.

What collectors choose to acquire represents their understanding of which objects can best convey our understanding of the past, as all objects collected belong to the past.

Can you describe the five 'fields' presented in the exhibition?

Doing it clearly is a challenge. Basically, each field occupies about six meters by ten, albeit with some variations.

From Stone Age artifacts to modern toy bricks, this selection also reflects the impact of the political situations I experienced in my personal expressive research and the fragments that emerged.

These seemingly unrelated elements tell the same story, albeit in different ways, which is to say that all of us, consciously or otherwise, are part of the story. Storytelling is the most powerful explanation of who we are today.

Your work is often read as articulated in a series of dichotomies: past and present, manual and mechanical, precious and worthless, useful and useless, construction and destruction, tradition and future, and so on. Do you find yourself in this interpretation?

In reality, this kind of reading seems to belong to a simplified and destructive 'fast-food' culture. Works of art are much more complex than that.

They exist as something, but at the same time they deny themselves and become something other than what they are, even the opposite of it. This is why the exhibition is entitled Making Sense.

The act of making sense recalls the philosophy of the Tao of Lao Tze, or the way in which things follow patterns and rules that govern existence itself; the true pattern cannot be fully expressed through language and thought alone.

It is not something that can be definitively completed. Thus, making sense is only an attempt, a continuous exploration of the logic and meaning of existence.

How do you turn something useful into something useless but precious? And what is the purpose, and the message, behind this 'transformation'?

The usefulness or uselessness of something depends entirely on our value judgments about behavior.

These judgments, however, are limited to a specific realm of human experience, whether something is deemed useful or useless.

All efforts to achieve usefulness are ultimately useless, while uselessness itself is useful.

Have you worked with different materials, such as marble, ceramic, glass… What does experimenting with materials represent for you?

Any activity related to materials reflects the ability of human beings to understand and control. In the absence of human intervention, materials are nothing but materials.

There are also works on display that refer to the pandemic. What can we find on display related to this theme and what is the reason for their selection?

The works of art most directly related to the Covid-19 pandemic are the toilet paper series.

This humble product comes to symbolize the fragility of human existence and the revaluation of what we consider precious.

Using something as insignificant and seemingly worthless as toilet paper to depict moments of mental and emotional crisis, we are confronted with the stark reality of our human condition.

I would now like to focus on the large-scale installations that take the visitor from Kensington High Street to the gallery through a Qing Dynasty house into the museum foyer.

This house dates back to the Qing era, and even earlier, to the Ming dynasty.

I used a common exterior paint to deconstruct it into color blocks, with a principle similar to the one Mondrian employed, and in doing so I demolished the ethical characteristics of Chinese architecture.

The original order no longer exists, although the mortise and tenon structure of the building is still present. Its existence is defined by its division and the substitution of its value. The title, Coloured House, also means "pornographic house/sexually oriented space" in Chinese, a place wrapped up in desire.

Many of your works are closely related to the traditions of China. What does tradition represent in relation to the present and in a future perspective?

The definition of civilization includes memories and traditions, because without them we are nothing. Traditions include all attributes that characterize us, regardless of their perceived value, be it good or bad, advanced or backward.

I'm just like that. This exhibition aims to use the memories of objects and the materiality of their existence as evidence to suggest the limits and absurdity of our existence.

Testo di Damiano Gullì