Home Arts Ai Weiwei discusses refugees in the UK, moving on from Covid and why Lego is his medium of choice

Ai Weiwei discusses refugees in the UK, moving on from Covid and why Lego is his medium of choice

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At the launch of a new show in London, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei spoke about life during Covid, the struggles his father faced and why he finds the UK government’s treatment of asylum seekers so poor.

The British government, under Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has said that “people making dangerous, unnecessary and illegal journeys to the UK, for example by small boat, will be relocated to Rwanda, where they will be supported to rebuild their lives.”

At the opening of his exhibition Give sense at the Design Museum (April 7-July 30), Ai tells The arts journal: “It’s a crime [against] humanity. It is proof that defines [the] United Kingdom in the current political situation. Let’s talk about our humanity and our compassion. It’s not really about refugees, it’s about us, who we are. Who we are is defined by how we treat people.

The exhibition is described as the first to frame Ai’s work through the prism of architecture and design. “In a world of limitless production and crafting, Ai’s in-depth approach to story and crafting forces us to question what we value,” says a guide from the exhibition.

Toilet paper sculptures on display – two life-size rolls, one in marble and one in glass— demonstrate the demand for basic disposables during the coronavirus crisis. “The strongest ability [people have] is their oblivion. It seems like nothing ever happened. We have already completely forgotten,” Ai says, referring to the pandemic.

A centerpiece of the show is a staggering 15-meter-long work made up of 650,000 Lego bricks in 22 colours; the work, Water Lilies #1 (2022), is a recreation of the triptych Water Lilies by Claude Monet (1914-26) from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

It is the largest Lego work ever made by Ai Weiwei. “Lego is not exactly 2D…it has the third dimension of surface thickness,” Ai explains. “If you want to make a breakthrough in art or literature, you have to find your vocabulary.”

A black portal in the middle of the Lego artwork references an underground dugout in Xinjiang province where Ai and his father, the poet Ai Qing, lived in forced exile in the 1960s. “Their hellish desert home pierces the aquatic paradise,” a statement read.

“My dad must have cleaned the really bad toilets there [while in exile]they [people in the toilet] used the corner [of other furniture] to clean their asses. There was a thick, shitty patina… there’s no vocabulary; it taught me so much [about] understand humanity. It can go really low,” Ai says.

In a press conference, Ai also opened up about his nomadic situation and why he left Berlin for the UK in 2019 after four years. “The Germans demanded my gratitude for saving my life,” he said. According The Guardian, he built a replica of his destroyed Shanghai workshop outside Lisbon. “I’m tired of city life and tried to find a place with more sun,” he told reporters. “People in the city are not normal; there is too much excitement and desperation in the city.

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