Making an Impression
The first words at the press preview go to global artist Ai Weiwei. “Our world is complex and collapsing towards an unpredictable future. It’s crucial for individuals to find a personalised language to express their experience of these challenging conditions. Personalised expression arises from identifying with history and memories while creating a new language and narrative. Without a personal narrative, artistic narration loses its quality. In Water Lilies #1, I integrate Monet’s Impressionist painting, reminiscent of Zenism in the East, and concrete experiences of my father and me into a digitised and pixelated language. Toy bricks as the material, with their qualities of solidity and potential for deconstruction, reflect the attributes of language in our rapidly developing era where human consciousness is constantly dividing.”
Opening to the public in two days’ time, this is Ai Weiwei’s biggest British exhibition in eight years. In 2022, he curated the 15th Annual UK Exhibition of the Koestler Awards at the Southbank Centre. Koestler Arts is a charity which supports ex offenders, secure patients and detainees in the UK to express themselves creatively. In his usual thoughtful and meaningful fashion, the artist designed 15 intimate areas that were based on the size of a typical cell in a British prison (1.8 metres by three metres). At The Design Museum, he swaps confinement for space. Water Lilies #1 spans a full 15 metre long wall of the main gallery. The richness of colour contrasts with John Pawson’s interior – the English minimalist reworked the original Sixties building in 2016.
Made entirely of Lego (650,000 toy bricks), the work is a recreation and reintrepretation of Claude Monet’s Impressionist painting. The lily ponds of that artist’s home in Giverny outside Paris look natural but are manmade. Pixelation replaces brushstrokes. Both are a blurring of sorts. A dark portal interrupts the colourful tranquillity – it represents a door to the underground hiding place in Xinjiang where he and his dad were forced to live in the 1960s. A far cry from his current home: an estate in the middle of Portugal shared with his family and seven beloved cats.
Other works at this internationally important exhibition include five fields of objects that the artist has collected since the 1990s laid out in massive rectangles on the floor of the gallery. This is mass production by hand on an industrial scale. On a Chinese scale. In their sheer number they allude to one of his key themes: the repression of the individual in modern China. There is something funereal about them. Are they rows of lost shoes or stones? Are they broken bones or pieces or porcelain? It’s hard to make sense of them. To get a clear impression. “Liberty” is scrawled on one of the myriad pieces of Lego in one of the fields. A word particularly poignant to Ai Weiwei.
The last words at the press preview go to Justin McGuirk, Curator at the Design Museum and curator of Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, alongside Assistant Curator Rachel Hajek, “Several of the works in this exhibition capture the destruction of urban development in China over the last two decades. With Water Lilies #1 Ai Weiwei presents us with an alternate vision – a garden paradise. On the one hand he has personalised it by inserting the door of his desert childhood home, and on the other he has depersonalised it by using an industrial language of modular Lego blocks. This is a monumental, complex and powerful work and we are proud to be the first museum to show it.” The principal funder of Ai Weiwei Making Sense is Rueben Foundation.
At the exit of the exhibition three Chinese characters on a wall come from the first line of the Dao De Jing, the founding text of Dadoism, written by the philosopher Laozi in around 400 BC: “The dao that can be told, is not the eternal Dao.” Ai Weiwei’s own deconstruction of this saying is “Making Sense”.