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

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

The UK government, under the Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, says that “people who make dangerous, unnecessary and illegal journeys to the UK, such as by small boat, will be relocated to Rwanda, where they will be supported to rebuild their lives.”

At the opening of his exhibition Making Sense at the Design Museum (7 April-30 July), Ai tells The Art Newspaper: “It is a crime [against] humanity. It is evidence defining [the] UK in today’s political situation. Let’s talk about our humanity and our compassion. It is not really about refugees, it is 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 lens of architecture and design. “In a world of limitless production and craftsmanship, Ai’s searching approach to history and craftsmanship forces us to question what we value,” an exhibition guide says.

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

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

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

A black portal in the middle of the Lego work refers to 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 punctures the watery paradise,” a statement says.

“My father had to clean 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 patina of shit… there is no vocabulary; this taught me so much [about] understanding humanity. It can go really low,” Ai says.

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

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