In 2008, a devastating earthquake struck Sichuan, claiming the lives of many children due to poorly constructed schools. Their memory lives on in Ai Weiwei’s latest exhibition, “Making Sense,” at the Design Museum in London. Through profound installations and thought-provoking displays, Weiwei pays tribute to the lives lost and explores the profound impact of objects created and used by humans.
Commemorating Lives Lost
One of the most poignant features of the exhibition is the display of red-framed sheets of paper, adorned with the names of 5,197 children who perished in the earthquake. Each name was meticulously imprinted using individually hand-carved jade stamps. The tangible existence of these names speaks volumes, evoking a sense of loss and reminding us of the tragedy that unfolded.
The Power of Objects
As you explore the exhibition, you’ll notice a deliberate absence of human presence. Instead, Ai Weiwei conveys meaning through videos and photographs capturing Beijing’s essence from decades past. Flea market brawls and guided tours of soon-to-be redeveloped alleyways all beckon us into a world that once thrived with life. Yet, the absence of people heightens our focus on the countless artifacts that silently testify to the hands that created them and bodies they served.
Objects with Stories
Every object within “Making Sense” tells a story. The exhibition space, void of partitions, houses five rectangular fields brimming with historical artifacts. Among them are 4,000 neolithic stone tools, 250,000 spouts discarded from porcelain factories, 200,000 porcelain ammunition balls, and a field of Lego bricks contributed by the public. These fields serve as material representations of value and use, intertwining ancient relics with mass-produced toys.
Layers of Understanding
As you delve deeper into the exhibition, diverse interpretations unfold. Vitrines contain Ai Weiwei’s own artworks, such as marble and glass representations of toilet rolls, symbolizing the ever-changing value of ordinary items. A jade rendering of a sex toy, juxtaposed with a glass replica of a hard hat, challenges our perceptions of fragility and rigidity. And porcelain replicas of skull and bone fragments shed light on the labor camps of the past, where Ai’s father was confined.
Creation, Destruction, and Persistence
Ultimately, “Making Sense” is an ode to the act of creation. The exhibition seamlessly weaves together themes of creation and destruction, showcasing the humanity and resilience present in objects. It pays tribute to the skills and memories threatened by large-scale industry projects, connecting making in the present with making in the past through countless artifacts. The casual presentation of ancient items keeps them alive and relevant, bridging the gap between generations.
Memorable Exhibits and a Resilient Spirit
Among the exhibition’s standout moments is the timber frame of a Qing dynasty house adorning the museum’s atrium. Saved from destruction, it now breathes with new life, painted in vibrant industrial colors that challenge traditional heritage. Additionally, a wall-sized rendition of Monet’s water lily painting, constructed entirely of Lego bricks, serves as a meditation on artifice and craft. A dark rectangle interrupts the idyllic scene, symbolizing the underground desert home where Ai and his father once lived, reinstating the spirit of resilience in adversity.
“Making Sense” is an extraordinary exploration of design and its human significance. Ai Weiwei’s ability to infuse horror, playfulness, and delight into his exhibits creates a truly immersive experience. Visit the Design Museum and immerse yourself in the world of Ai Weiwei, where objects convey tales of the past, present, and the resilience of the human spirit.