Podcast: Ai Weiwei in conversation with Justin McGuirk

Reflecting on what the works in the exhibition mean to him, and how they embody the tensions between past and present, hear Ai Weiwei talk about how his obsessive collecting of historical artefacts over the last thirty years has shaped his thinking about design, making, and his homeland, China.


Welcome to the Design Museum podcast. Every episode we bring you the most important insights into design, from our archive of live recordings, and explore new perspectives on stories at the heart of our exhibitions.

In this episode, the Design Museum’s Chief Curator Justin McGuirk talks to artist Ai Weiwei about his new exhibition Ai Weiwei: Making Sense. Ai explores how his obsessive collecting of historical artefacts over the last thirty years has shaped his thinking about design, making and his homeland, China.

Their discussion encompasses how design is a language that communicates across huge time periods, the ways objects are a form of evidence and the ethics of handmade things. Ai Weiwei reflects on what the works in the exhibition mean to him, and how they embody the tensions between past and present, precious and worthless, hand and machine.

Justin McGuirk: Welcome everyone. Weiwei has spoken a lot about this exhibition in the last few days. Weiwei and I haven't really had a chance to sit down and talk about the show properly since it's opened, or since we've installed it. It's been go, go, go to get it open so this is a chance for us to go a little bit deeper into some of the issues underlying the show and some of the questions Weiwei’s asking of himself, and of you. How do you feel about the show Weiwei?

Ai Weiwei: I have no feeling about the show. Makes it simple.

JM: Lets go back to the origins of the show, which are about 30 years old I would say, when you started collecting, because the real core of the show is the fields on the floor. Some of you will have seen, some of you will see later. These incredible works of accumulations of vast amounts of objects that Weiwei has collected over the last 30 years. Collecting is, I think, a key part of your practice. When you went back to China in 1993 after a decade in New York, you started collecting, why? Why were you interested in collecting and what kind of things were you interested in?

AWW: It's a process. I never really think that, you know, I don't have a purpose really. I do this for my own curiosity and, I think, I'm a very stubborn person, I repeat my act. If you bought one, and then buy another one, then you have a collection. If I buy a book, and see another bookshop with the book I make a second copy. I don't really know why I get a second copy. And some books I realise I have five copies, exactly the same. And the problem is I don't read those books, so I have to give it to people or something, you know. And talk about why I started collecting, during that time China had just opened up and I realised I have seen so many things I have never seen before because they're digging everywhere, fixing the roads, or building new cities, so they find a lot of materials, and everybody wants to get rich. So the farmers bring whatever they find to the city to sell it. So I realised a lot of materials for me, that should be very expensive, but they sell at a very, very low price, unbelievably low. So for curiosity I say, I need to see those things as some kind of material evidence, because you only see those materials in museums, but it is everywhere in China. But I didn't realise this golden movement because now you don't see anything. It's all fake fabricated, but that moment it’s so much. So every day I go to an antique market, and I bring back so many things. I start washing them because it looks dirty and smelly. You know my mum said she's very jealous I gave so much passion to those items, I don't even talk to her that much. And so yeah, every day I just do collecting, it's just some kind of habit. And also when I grew up was during the Culture Revolution, we don't see old things, all things are wiped out or destroyed. And also in 2000, and 1993, when I go back home, I feel China is so foreign. You know it already changed so much and I have to grab something to be attached to.

JM: I mean you talk about evidence, which is one of the key themes of the show. And so collecting is, it suggests, what you're saying suggests is a form of evidence of histories that China just wasn't interested in at the time?

AWW: Well China is not just interested in evidence, but most time there destroys the evidence. If you see the show, you can see so many truths have to be heightened, and they cannot clearly state a truth, or it's, it's just impossible for them to do that.

JM: I think what's interesting, clearly about your collections is that you collect very fine things like jade and porcelain. But actually most of the things on show in the gallery are very modest things. Rubbish, even, like broken teapot sprouts.

AWW: Yeah, when you get a lot for rubbish, it becomes like a gold.

JM: When you go to the gallery, you'll see a field of broken teapot spouts from the Song Dynasty, so 1100 hundred years old. There's 250,000 of them there. Once people figure out what they are, there's that kind of moment of wrestling with it. And then when they start to get their head around how many there are, their next question is, how did he get them all? How did you get them all?

AWW: I don't know. It's first time I have presented in England this work. I did once in Los Angeles. Every time I look at it myself, I get surprised. You know just think about those, who is making them, why do they have to break so many, you know, tea pots or wine pots, and yeah, it’s depressing for me. That’s why I don’t like to look at my works, they make me dizzy, and normally I put them in the boxes. This is only a small portion of what I have because the museum is not large enough.

JM: We're doing the miniature version.

AWW: It’s true.

JM: For me, the way I read it, is that the more you collect, almost the more you understand about something. And it feels a bit like a bit of an obsession or a kind of piece of research, but I guess part of it is you had a reputation as a collector of curious things, and people just started to bring the stuff to you.

AWW: They are still calling me to say hey we still have something prepared for you. I just wait for a moment. You know, I only have one museum who likes to show those works, but yeah, they keep bringing something in.

JM: So they're still coming?

AWW: Oh yes.

JM: Okay. I can see the seeds of a future show. One of my favourite works in the exhibition is the Cannon Balls. There's only 200,000 of those, and they were found around a fortress in Dingzhou. And they're the earliest form of canon, a kind of hand canon. They're also from the Song Dynasty, so more than a thousand years old. A very powerful and curious work. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came across them and your experience of finding these things?

AWW: To tell you the truth, I don't have very good memories, that's why I collect things, because, you know. And yeah, they're there now. If you look at the floor, there are so many and, they're perfectly made by hand, and in porcelain. You know, it's not just mud or stone. It's really, highly crafted porcelain. To fire one you need to go through 20 different procedures to make this kind of high-quality porcelain. And still, you collect them. You know, you don't, I don't know how many I will get. You think, oh, maybe that is all they have, but they keep calling me. And I said, why not? You know, because if I did once, I cannot really stop it, you know? I said, okay, okay. So I said, so many okays.

JM: I think one of the powerful things about this show is trying to understand a time when people made things by hand on that scale. Everything you're showing has a kind of industrial scale, but it's not really industrial, it's all craftsmanship. That's something that's probably unique to Chinese history.

AWW: Well when there's no machines, everything was made by hand. I think that's a very precious time because hands teach us how to think. Where knowledge or emotions or rationalities before all come from a personal experience. Not like today. Today we just touch the screen, and you know, get the job done. But before everybody had to work out of something, otherwise, you cannot survive.

JM: Well, what the scale of these works opened up for me, as a historian of sorts, because we tend to think, if you look at the spouts, 250,000 of them, we think we invented the factory in this country with the industrial revolution. We think we invented industrial porcelain in the late, industrial pottery, in the late 18th century. And then you look at that and you realise that China had it for a thousand years before, maybe without the steam power, and China was the supreme technical civilisation for a thousand years before Britain came up with the Industrial Revolution. It feels a bit like there's an alternative history of technology in that show that is not maybe well understood.

AWW: I agree.

JM: Good. I'm so glad. The question of craftsmanship is, you know, is key here, because you've talked about how there's a kind of sense of, there's a kind of ethic and ethical order and a sense of beauty in the things that you’ve found. Do you feel we've, obviously we've lost it, but do you miss it? Are you nostalgic for it?

AWW: I never really look at things, I never use the words beauty. So when you mention the words, I think I’m in the wrong crowd and you know, I, I look at an object about how it functions and why it's not functioning anymore, and what is the reason behind it, and the shape and forms being created – I don't use the words beauty because I don't trust the words beauty.

JM: Mm-hmm.

AWW: Because everybody uses beauty. I don't know what that means exactly. What's beauty?

JM: The context for all of this is... the way, and you mentioned it, all the digging, the road building, was the way that, not just Beijing, but China was changing at a speed that was unprecedented.

AWW: I think the major concept difference is suddenly everything had a value. Before you are under communist. There's not anything which you can consider property or private property. So even you... the land belonged to the country, and everything belongs to the country. And even families or individuals think they're part of the property of the nation. So Deng Xiaoping says let someone getting rich first. After that moment people started to think everything has value, and you can start selling things, or buying things. So that made society a little different.

JM: But you were documenting the way the city was changing through your photographs and the films you've made about Beijing and I'm curious, I mean, it was, it was a turbulent time of change. Was that exciting or was it depressing?

AWW: It's neither. The change is about change of value judgment. So when they think the new has the value, they destroy the old and they think you know... it is all about using new value to replace the old ones. But very often humans are very short-sighted, and they don't even understand what the old value is, and they just wanted to make money or change, so they would sell their beautiful Ming style furniture to replace it with this plastic stool or something because they just don't understand what is valuable, they lost all the context about value. This very often happens in every society during the development as you see in some fast developed European nations. You see the buildings like Switzerland, they build so much in the seventies. Now they regret it, only the nations that slowly developed like Italy or many nations, still have the old buildings on all the streets, because they're not fast developed. They cannot afford to build the buildings like 1970s building, this kind of industrial type. How do you say, precasted modules. And there’s also some of the ugliest buildings in seventies buildings, horrible. That's the same story.

JM: You've built a lot in China, and you had an architectural practice called Fake, and you've designed and built dozens of buildings, and in fact, the great Chinese architect Wang Shu once called you the best architect in China. And then you decided that you'd had enough of architecture. Why was that?

AWW: Architecture is very political, and you are hired by individual or state, or big companies. Most architects, because they like to make something, they think their activities more or less like God. They create something that never exists, but basically what they create is exactly the same, you know, because there's gravity there and you know, God doesn't care about gravity. But the architects can never escape the gravity, so they make funny faces trying to pretend there's no gravity. But most cases is such a failure, so I don't like this kind of struggle. You know, I'm a son of a poet. I don't care about gravity, you know, that's why I said goodbye.

JM: One of the other things that is very paramount in the show is your kind of fascination with particular kinds of ordinary objects. And it could be cosmetics, packaging, or takeaway boxes, or sex toys. And you translate them into precious materials. It could be marble or jade. And I'm curious how you pick what you want to draw our attention to. Like do certain objects just speak to you, or are there certain objects that are just ironic that you feel there's a good game to be played with materials?

AWW: Well it's not a really a makeup. I pick them, maybe they pick up me, you know because they so relate, to my sometimes, necessity. Like when I was detained all I needed was a coat hanger. When I was there every night, I washed my underwear or t-shirt but had no place to dry it. So they always asked me, what do you want? I said, I need a set of a coat hangers. You know, those kind of plastic coat hangers. They have to report to their boss to say, this guy need coat hangers, and it takes days or months. They cannot give me a coat hangers. Every time I have to dry it on the back of my chair, there’s only three chairs there. One belongs to the interrogator, the one to write down what I'm saying, and my chair.

So all I want is, because they told me I can be locked into the room for a year, or more even, before they put me on trial. So it seems to me if I want to wash my clothes clean and to dry them properly, so next morning I will not be very smelly, I need coat hangers. So it becomes something, you know, I didn't ask too much, but it's almost like impossible to gather those coat hangers. So finally they become very friendly. They give me a set of coat hangers, use my money, you know, because they took all my pockets, all my belongings. So they said that we use your money to buy the coat hangers. Then suddenly one day they said you should get out today. And I took those, I grabbed the coat hangers. I think I put them in a black garbage bag that they gave to me. So I put them in the bag, you know, I'm afraid they don't let me take the coat hangers, but they did let me have them. So in that certain moment, you don't have a friend, you don't have family, you don't have anybody, but you could have coat hangers there.

JM: As you all walked into the museum today, you'll have passed an eight-ton stone sculpture of a loo roll, which is a reference to the great toilet roll panic of 2020 during the pandemic, when the supermarket shelves were suddenly empty of them. That was amusing for you.

AWW: Toilet?

JM: No, the fact that we were all so worried about missing toilet paper.

AWW: A long story. Yeah, my father was a professional toilet cleaner when he was exiled to Xinjiang, the year I was born. He was criticised as a rightist. This story should go a little bit earlier. He studied in Paris, and he was an artist, and he somehow loved Monet. And you know, we have the Monet Lego work in the exhibition. And on this Monet painting you see a black hole. We stayed in that hole for five years and during those five years, he was forced to clean the public, it's not a toilet, it's a shed pot. You know, it's just for villagers. So of course I never see a toilet roll until I’m almost 20 years old. People use all kind of things to wipe their arse and, you know, there’s a strange sense in this. He has to clean it. And every day I see different colours besides a strong smell. And you know, there’s no paper, not even newspaper, because newspaper always printed the political slogans or German news. You cannot use it, if you use that, that piece of paper will be holding the night meeting to consider some kind of entire revolution evidence. Somebody use that paper to do something, which, you know, they have all kind of religious practice.

So that has nothing to do with this toilet roll that fast winds to 2019. I was stuck in 2020 in Spring during the pandemic in Cambridge. There's nobody on the street. Every day I walked out with my son, he was over 10 years old. Then we see there’s a wooden block that belongs to a tree or something, some waste. I said, let’s bring this back, we can make something out of it. So he said what can we do? So I said, let’s do a toilet roll. We don't have our tools, we use kitchen knives, but very difficult to make that toilet roll.

I just wanted to teach him something to use his hands, to make something. And he always likes to be involved with this kind of silly activity. And that's the toilet roll because in the news, they said on the shelves all those toilet rolls disappeared. So I think it's interesting, you know, a society that thinks it’s so guaranteed and so rich. And in Cambridge, you know, cause you always see everybody, either old professors or students, but suddenly people are panicked about toilet rolls. So I said it’s worse to make one.

JM: You mentioned the water lilies, the great Lego work that's in the gallery at the moment. And I was wondering actually, because we never really spoke about it, why you chose that particular work to recreate?

AWW: Well, I have done many works with Lego. I did a work with Lego in 2014 because I had to create a group of political prisoners,176, to show a location called Alcatraz in California, which is an ex-federal prison, a very famous prison. So the show is about freedom. That time I was under surveillance or some kind of self-detention. So I cannot go out to put up a show, but the jail is very big. So I think maybe Lego would help me because I can design, and someone can build outside of China. So it's no problem. So I come up with the idea to use Lego, and the show was very successful.

So by doing that, I learned how to use Lego to create images. Even Lego only has 42 colours, but still that's more than I needed. So to create this Monet painting it was a small challenge, because any colour should be a whole set of colours, from very cold to warm, but we only used maybe 30 colours. We never had a piece using the full 40 colours and this incident happened because Lego Company refused to sell me Lego. You see they have this old policy not to use their work, I mean their bricks, to build political works. So I thought that is a political statement. So I was I was pretty mad because if they don't sell me Lego, it's like I'm a constructor, they refuse to sell me bricks, so what am I going to use?

I know I don't like concrete, and I said I'm a brick layer, and I made a little argument. Then the argument becomes very big. 20 museums around the world start to donate Legos for me, I like those museums, because they're all liberals. They're you know, they like trouble, they hate big companies, but they’re all part of big companies, but anyway. So I suddenly I get so much Lego. And I put part of it in this show in relation to this Monet work, but it is Lego they donate, they cannot use, they made sure it is garbage they donate to me. But I really thank them because I think I got such support. If I order Lego, each order only can be 999. I don’t know where that number comes from, from this Danish company, but we have to make many, many orders to achieve this 560,000 Legos. We have to wait, and the colour may not be available, and the price is so high. I will not tell you if Chinese makes Lego what is different to the price. Maybe I tell you – Chinese makes a single piece for 3 cents. We buy the Lego from Lego company for 45 cents. You see the difference? That tells us why China will win. Just a little thing, you can tell. And I ordered Lego in Chinese. I said I need 1000 square meter. 1000 square meter is not 999. The, you know, the one we're showing is 15 by, it's only 20 square meter, it will take ages to collect those Legos. But in China it takes 20 days to deliver to you. And in any colour you want, you design, they will make it for you. That's a real company, you know. I'm going to change to Chinese Lego, you know.

JM: I think you should, I think you should.

AWW: Otherwise, I get so depressed. I become someone, you know, today you see a lot of people say I’m so depressed, I’ve never seen people so depressed, but when we are in such a difficult situation, we’ve never really had the depression, we’ve had joy even. But I think companies like this really make you depressed. Banks, doctors, you know, oh my God, to mention them I already get depressed.

JM: The press response to that work has been phenomenal. I mean, you've probably all seen it everywhere, on the front page of the Times, everywhere. And you said that it's probably the largest media interest you've ever seen in a single work.

AWW: The press always like something for the wrong reason. I don't know why it got so popular. Sometimes because they think this guy is already popular maybe we cannot kill him now. I only measure my work if my gallery can sell it. It’s impossible for galleries to sell 15 meters. That makes me very happy because I say, ha, you know. And it also makes the Lego company very happy. 

JM: They're doing very well out of this, I think, yeah. You're in Portugal, happy with your setup there, and you're building again. You're building a new building, so you're being an architect again, in a way.

AWW: I build but I refuse to say I’m an architect because such dirty name. You know in China you build because you want to build, and you use anything to build because you want to have a place to sleep or somewhere. But architects are so arrogant. The name and the people, they think they're so special. I think they're just dumb, you know, they're not so special.

JM: Apart from the ones in the room, of course.

AWW: It’s okay. I know a lot of them, they are going to beat me later, but before they beat me, I have to say that.

JM:Just continuing on architects, I mean, you've shown here, you've responded to the building that we’re in. You've inhabited the atrium with the incredible coloured house, which you all walked through. Museums, is there one that has particularly been sympathetic to show your work in, or a great challenge to show your work in?

AWW: You mean this museum?

JM: No, any museum. Is there one that you’ve found particularly interesting architecturally to show in?

AWW: No. I think, it's packaging. You know, you want to buy a cake, or you want to eat the cake, you throw out the package. If you can throw the buildings, yes, you know, stupid. They stay there, you know, and it's really for, oh I will go that way and see that building there, that’s the only reason it stays there.

JM: I'm going to let them have a go in a minute. My final question, after this I think you deserve a bit of a rest, then what, what’s next?

AWW: I like to play cards. You know, after the show we have to put all of those back in the warehouse, and it will stay there forever, you know. You know my Sunflower Seeds stay with me forever, because I cannot even grow sunflowers from it. It’s not like a Ukrainian sunflower where they say, ‘before you die put some sunflower seeds in your pockets so next year some sunflowers will come out.’ The last sentence from this old lady made me cry because I have so many sunflower seeds but none of them will grow.

JM: We'd love to have you join the conversation.

AWW: Make sure you just ask one question at once, you know. My memory doesn't work for two questions.

Audience member: Earlier on in the talk you said using your hands makes you think. How in this digitally obsessed world can we get that message across?

AWW: I just created a digital game where you can put your middle finger anywhere, on any building, you know, use Google Maps to solve that problem. Why are people laughing?

JM: There was a, the gentleman in the hat has a question.

Audience member: Picasso said we’re all born artists; the challenge is to remain an artist as we grow up. Why do we lose our creativity? Why do our children lose their creativity? And what can we do to stop that happening?

AWW: You asked three questions. Can you make this one question?

Audience member: Why do children lose their creativity?

AWW: Because they have stupid adults.

JM: That's true. I think you're scaring them Weiwei.

AWW: You need to be scared. Yeah.

Audience member: I recently went to a talk, and it was about the value of craft, but also the new craft of digital crafting. I just wondered what your opinions were on digital realisations of pottery and 3D artworks, as opposed to, the kind of, physical crafting.

AWW: You’re talking about AI right?

Audience member: Yes.

AWW: That’s my name. But I would say this so-called AI development everybody is talking about it, you can easily create images or answers or make panic about peoples jobs, like doctors, or content, or anybody's job because AI can replace 80% of the human effort. But the problem is do we really want something to be so efficient, to provide something so inhuman and the loss of humanity, really. Do we treat something with our sensitivities or mistakes, or who we are and all of this knowledge to get that kind of mediocre type of standard performance. So I would not say it’s a danger, but really it affects our humanity, and of course humanity always can change, and can adjust to some other level but that would not be my problem, you know. I don’t have feelings with these kind of AI structured images, but I’m sure that is very useful. You know you can use it to write a screenplay, or you don’t even need models, you don’t need actors, actresses, they look so imperfect anyway, but still maybe many people enjoy that part.

Audience member: Yeah, no, I wanted to ask because seeing you talk is quite interesting. The way you repeat things constantly, the use of multiple objects that are the same. Is it because you’re tired of explaining your work? You're trying to make it as clear as possible.

AWW: I think we’re all adults here, it doesn’t matter whether your man or woman, you know a moment you needed to repeat, same act or same moment to get excited or something, you know, it’s just like that, you know. Sex, it’s about repeating, you don’t do it once, you have to do it to a moment your body gets a signal. So I collect so much to get a signal, to get excited. You know, sorry, maybe that’s not exactly the topic the Design Museum would like to talk, I often forget when I am.

JM: In your autobiography you reference Andy Warhol’s ‘I’d like to be a mute machine’.

AWW: I like that because Andy Warhol never tells the truth, so.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Design Museum podcast. Ai Weiwei: Making Sense is on at the Design Museum until the 30th July 2023 – book your tickets on designmuseum.org. If you’d like to hear more about the design stories that shape us, please rate and subscribe to this podcast via Acast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

This episode was produced by Hattie Moir.

The exhibition

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense

This major exhibition, developed in collaboration with Ai Weiwei himself, is the first to present his work as a commentary on design and what it reveals about our changing values.