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"The most important factor in design is time and place" says Ai Weiwei

Design objects are a reflection of the issues humans face over time, says Ai Weiwei in this conversation with curator Justin McGuirk filmed exclusively by Dezeen for London's Design Museum.

McGuirk, chief curator at the Design Museum, spoke to the Chinese artist about Making Sense, Ai's first design-focussed exhibition to date, which opened last month and is on display at the museum until the end of July.

Ai Weiwei installations at London's Design Museum
Making Sense is Ai Weiwei's first design-focussed exhibition, which is on display at London's Design Museum

During the interview, which was filmed at the Design Museum, Ai told McGuirk that the exhibition explores design in a multifaceted way.

"I think it’s a very unique show in terms of the whole topic of design," said the artist.

The exhibition, he explained, is about "how humans make definitions about our life, our memories and how our design acts relate to our past, our history and also [how they] relate to current personal issues or political issues".

Making Sense collects a variety of pieces created by the artist – from an installation formed from hundreds of thousands of cannonballs made during China's Song dynasty to a vast reinterpretation of French impressionist Claude Monet's iconic Water Lillies painting created entirely out of Lego bricks.

Lego mural informed by Claude Monet's Water Lillies painting
The show includes a large Lego mural

The show marks the first time that all of the works have been shown in the UK, while "most" of the works are being exhibited for the first time in any location, according to Ai.

"As an artist or even a thinker, we are products of the time," reflected the artist.

"It could be politicians, philosophers, writers, artists, of course, [or] architects and graphic designers and fashion designers – whoever wants to give a new interpretation based on his or her own knowledge. That is design."

"The most important factor in design is time and place," he continued, stressing the importance of historical context in design.

Destroyed sculptures by Ai Weiwei
Sculptures destroyed by the Chinese government also feature

In particular, McGuirk noted the sense of Chinese history that runs through the show, which includes a large floor installation made up of fragments of sculptures that were destroyed by the Chinese government when it demolished the artist's Beijing studio without warning in 2018.

Photographs charting the construction of the National Stadium, widely known as the Bird's Nest, are also on display. The stadium served as the main arena for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Ai was initially attached to the architecture project, which he worked on with Herzog & de Meuron, but later distanced himself from the stadium in protest against the Chinese state.

Photographs of the National Stadium at the Making Sense exhibition by Ai Weiwei
The artist displayed photographs of the National Stadium under construction

The pair especially highlighted China's changing urban landscape during the conversation.

"In human development, we focus on how to construct new things. But sometimes, by constructing new things, we destroy the old. And we make sure they give the space to the new," said Ai.

"But if you look at what China did, they tried to destroy all the memories. More than just old buildings. So there are several works directly related to deconstruction," he added.

The pair agreed that "evidence" is another general theme that features in the exhibition, which displays large snake-shaped sculptures made from life jackets and children's school bags respectively. The sculptures are dedicated to Europe's ongoing refugee crisis as well as the victims of China's 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

In particular, Ai referenced the scandal that emerged in the earthquake's aftermath, when officials were accused of constructing faulty schools which failed to withstand the disaster.

"Earthquakes look like a natural disruption, but why do you have 80,000 people disappear in a few seconds? Then, you start to ask the question – what is wrong with these structures? [They're] supposed to be a safe place," said the artist.

"I have to ask those questions, just in search of evidence. To collect all those names, to be truthful to what happened," he continued.

Snake-shaped sculptures made from life jackets and school bags
Snake-shaped sculptures reference one of the show's themes, "Evidence"

Known for his politically engaged work, Ai's portfolio of projects includes a cage-like installation in Stockholm informed by geographic borders and a lotus-shaped installation in Vienna made from life jackets worn by refugees.

The photography is by Ed Reeve

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense is on display at London's Design Museum from 7 April to 30 July 2023. See Dezeen Events Guide for an up-to-date list of architecture and design events taking place around the world.

Partnership content

This video was produced by Dezeen for the Design Museum as part of a partnership. Find out more about Dezeen's partnership content here.