Heaps of wonky tea spouts, rejected by a Song Dynasty quality controller aeons ago, thousands of Lego bricks donated by members of the public and innumerable porcelain fragments salvaged from artworks destroyed by the Chinese government, lay scattered across the tiled floor of London’s elephantine, industrial Design Museum, where they will remain until the 30th of July. Appearing, justifiably innocuous to a small number of observers, and yet decisively introducing others to the inimitable, avant-garde style of Ai Weiwei that distinguishes him as one of the most-celebrated multi-hyphenates of our time.
Framed as the Chinese contemporary artist’s first showcase concentrated solely on design, Making Sense is a must-see for those familiar with his entirely original to his way of working. Largely because it not only offers a fresh perspective, but because it adamantly demonstrates that Weiwei, who once declared “You start to see the society how it functions, how it works. Then you have a lot of criticism about how it works”, is not done speaking, and yes, he still has much to say. A case in point was the decision to bring this multifaceted exhibition to life, by including old as well as more up-to-the-minute works crafted by the dissident, such as Cabinet (2014) and Water Lilies #1 (2022).

Primarily, it is all about construction, both from a tangible and philosophical standpoint. In short, visitors to the space are encouraged to observe as much as they are persuaded to reflect on creation and destruction. Take, for instance, Provisional Landscapes, a photographic series which criticises the governmental seizure of land and heavy redevelopment of Chinese cities. Or the equally unmissable, yet undeniably pensive commemorative Nian Nian Souvenir monument, uninhibitedly made up of pieces of paper stamped with the names of over 5000 schoolchildren who passed away in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, many of them in poorly constructed schools.

Various other pieces, which are worth highlighting, also appear to commentate on the short-term symbolism and long-lasting value that we as observers, perhaps thoughtlessly convey upon everyday objects. None displayed throughout the exhibition best epitomises this more than Ai Weiwei’s Marble Takeout Box (2015) and Glass Helmet (2022). For its part, the former imitates a Styrofoam food container, often used by restaurants, to amplify the detrimental impact disposable objects have on the ecological landscape. Whilst the latter mimics a construction worker’s helmet, cast in glass to deliberately evoke the fragility of labour protection laws in China and the exploitation of migrant workers by the country. This play on material, typical to the creative’s practice, leaves a lingering question within the minds of observers, namely “Is it the ordinary or extraordinary that deserves more recognition?” In Making Sense, it’s something which is asked more incessantly than ever.
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