‘Bubble’ 2008 by Ai Weiwei was an installation of one hundred high-quality blue porcelain bubbles spread over an outdoor area of nearly two thousand feet on Watson Island, Miami. Each bubble was about nineteen inches tall and measured nearly twenty-seven inches on the diagonal; this being the largest sphere it is possible to make in porcelain without it cracking in the kiln. They were installed nine feet apart from one another and reflected the weather and waterfront.
Porcelain is the highest art form in China, and Ai Weiwei’s work has always focused on bringing older craftsmanship into contemporary contexts while creating or using new languages. However, when Ai’s ‘Left Right’ studio in Beijing was demolished by the Chinese state in 2018, ‘Bubble’ was among the works to be destroyed.
Ai Weiwei is the artist of resistance and resilience par excellence
‘Ai Weiwei: Making Sense’ has one complete porcelain sphere from ‘Bubble’ on display and a field of porcelain fragments that are the remains of Ai’s sculptures after the demolition of his studio. For many of us, such an experience – the deliberate destruction of a major project that had taken two years to bring about – would be soul-destroying. For Ai, it was the catalyst for a new work of art, evidencing the repression he experienced at the hands of the Chinese government. ‘Left Right Studio Material’, and Ai’s work more generally, is a profound act of resistance and resilience in the face of oppression.
Ai is the artist of resistance and resilience par excellence. For him, conceptual art and ‘readymades’ have become a way of life because art has become his way of responding to oppression. For him, art has become more than creative expression and a career; art has become his worldview and default response to each and every circumstance of oppression he has faced personally because he has consistently chosen to make art from those experiences.
Ai has credited Marcel Duchamp as one of his greatest influences, and this show accordingly includes ‘Hanging Man’, a homage to Duchamp by turning a coat hanger into the French artist’s profile. Ai has always worked with found objects (such as the coat hanger), as well as manipulating items from everyday modern culture (‘Marble Toilet Paper’) and reinterpreting artefacts from Chinese traditions (‘Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Label’). By drawing our attention to the easily overlooked, he asks us to assess and question value.
The exhibition as a whole is a commentary on design and what it reveals about our changing values, including those of China. More significant still, however, is the sense that the approaches of using ‘readymades’ and of conceptual art provide an ethos of resistance which demonstrates that any and every act of destruction can be turned into a new creation. His self-expressed love of problem-solving enables him, in the words of Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’, to always get back up again when knocked because he’s never going to be kept down. This persistence in bouncing back to bring beauty out of brokenness demonstrates that love is stronger than hate and, ultimately, always wins.
In an interview with the BBC, he said: “I came to understand that our understanding of freedom often arises from difficult situations. Only in difficulties can we find ways to solve problems and develop a suitable language.” He believes that: “Our world is complex and collapsing towards an unpredictable future”, so “It’s crucial for individuals to find a personalised language to express their experience of these challenging conditions.” Such “Personalised expression arises from identifying with history and memories while creating a new language and narrative.”
‘Water Lilies # I’ 2022, the largest Lego work Ai has ever created, is, perhaps, the most profound illustration of this ultimate reality. It is a recreation of Claude Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ using a depersonalised language of industrial parts and colours. Yet, it also contains a dark portal which is the recreation of the door to the underground dugout in Xinjiang province where Ai and his father, Ai Qing, lived in forced exile in the 1960s. This hellish existence and experience are transformed and transcended through its inclusion within Ai’s recreation of Monet’s watery paradise.
At the entrance to the exhibition, Ai has had projected two characters from the first line of the Dao De Jing, the founding text of Daoism, written around 400 BCE by philosopher Laozi. The full line is, ‘the dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.’ What Ai gives us in this exhibition is the ‘dao that can be told’ – the two characters he has had projected – that is, a making sense of life through the problems it poses in order to find identity.
Elsewhere in the Design Museum, we can also encounter the work of Yinka Ilori, who makes good use of the phrase, ‘Love always wins’. Ilori has a background in the Pentecostal church and, like Lakwena Mciver, another contemporary artist whose church experience shows up in her work, uses vibrant colour, strident patterns and positive slogans to fashion murals that inspire. Ilori’s interdisciplinary work starts conversations and sparks joy. His practice weaves together a wide range of influences, drawing on his Nigerian heritage and the diverse north London community where he grew up. In Ilori’s hands, design becomes a rich canvas for the expression of identities.
The exhibition highlights some of the most important aspects of Ilori’s work – such as his billboard graphics that promote joy – and places them beside key influences, especially Nigerian textiles. One hundred objects, ranging from artworks, photographs and furniture to textiles, books and personal possessions, offer an unprecedented glimpse into Ilori’s use of the power of design to absorb cultural influences and express London’s rich mix of identities.
From Ilori’s playful chairs to his lively, welcoming public spaces, his work acknowledges the power of design to create a more inclusive society. Ilori has created installations that highlight what people are hoping and praying for in the future. His murals, including ‘Love Always Wins’, ‘Better Days Are Coming I Promise’ and ‘This Is Human Kind’ were all an attempt to create words of wisdom or words of hope that would show we were going to get through the difficulties we encountered in the Covid-19 pandemic together.
Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, Design Museum, until 30 July 2023
Yinka Ilori: PARABLES FOR HAPPINESS, Design Museum, until 25 June 2023
Words by Rev Jonathan Evens ©Artlyst 2023
Lead photo: Ai Weiwei, Making Sense, Design Museum photo by Ed Reeve