Art aficionado or not, many are familiar with the works of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Known for his excessivism installation art, Weiwei has showcased a prolific portfolio of original creations over the years, many of which encapsulate the artist’s political conviction and personal poetry. His latest creation, unveiled prior to his exhibition at the Design Museum in London, is a masterful tribute to French impressionist painter Claude Monet’s Water Lilies artwork. Weiwei recreated the piece using nothing but legos!
The Water Lilies series is by far one of Monet’s best-known works of art. A nod to the tranquil beauty of nature, the series was inspired by the artist’s own flower garden in Giverny, Paris. Although depicting images of natural beauty, Monet’s garden comprised a man-made pond and garden designed and built by Monet himself in the 20th century. According to reports, Monet had the nearby river Epte partially diverted to create the idealised landscape for his painting.
Water Lilies #1
Calling it Water Lilies #1, Weiwei’s recreation of Monet’s painting features as many as 650,000 pieces of lego, in 22 distinct colours; this is his largest lego artwork to date. The piece spans 15m long and is said to cover one entire wall at the Design Museum gallery.
Weiwei’s recreation of the painting challenges people’s perception of beauty and reality by replacing Monet’s brushstrokes with a depersonalised language of industrial parts and colours. “Our world is complex and collapsing towards an unpredictable future. It’s crucial for individuals to find a personalized language to express their experience of these challenging conditions. Personalized expression arises from identifying with history and memories while creating a new language and narrative. Without a personal narrative, artistic narration loses its quality,” says Weiwei.
The pixel-like blocks used in Weiwei’s artwork are said to represent the “contemporary digital technologies” that are central to modern life, presenting the idea that art is often disseminated in the modern world. Adding a more poignant narrative into the piece, Weiwei further incorporated a dark portal on the right-hand side which represents a door to the underground dugout in Xinjiang province where Weiwei and his father lived in exile during the 1960s. “In Water Lilies #1, I integrate Monet’s Impressionist painting, reminiscent of Zenism in the East, and concrete experiences of my father and me into a digitized and pixelated language. Toy bricks as the material, with their qualities of solidity and potential for deconstruction, reflect the attributes of language in our rapidly developing era where human consciousness is constantly dividing.”
An influential figure in the contemporary art world, Ai Weiwei has produced an impressive range of artworks comprising installations, sculptures, photography, and music using varied materials like ceramics, marble, paint, porcelain, and wood among others. Weiwei uses his skills as an artist to bridge the gap between art and societal issues depicting powerful political messages that have earned him equal shares of praise and criticism.
While every piece of art created by Ai Weiwei is worthy of praise, there are a few that truly stand out. Take a look at some of the artist’s most prominent pieces below.
Fragments was among Weiwei’s earliest works. The installation was made using salvaged pillars and beams of tieli, Chinese ironwood, curated from demolished Qing dynasty temples. Weiwei worked with carpenters who employed old-fashioned techniques to balance the structure via linking arms and without nails. The interesting thing about the structure was that when viewed from above, it shows anchored poles that mark out the borders of a map of China. The tallest pole, measuring 16 feet, marks the location of Beijing. Through Fragments, Weiwei marries the discarded past, represented through Qing temple building blocks, and modern aesthetics, to depict the spatial and cultural transformations of modern Beijing, China, and the world.
The Bird’s Nest (2008)
Another one of his impressive creations, Weiwei regards his involvement with the creation of The Bird’s Nest as one of his biggest regrets. Designed in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games hosted by China, The Bird’s Nest stadium was inspired by the nation’s cultural heritage which was a collaborative approach between Weiwei and Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron. Given the discrepancy between China’s patriotic rhetoric and its terrible human rights record, Weiwei decided to boycott the Olympics and disregard his creation of the stadium. He was quoted in a Japanese newspaper called Yomiuri Shimbun saying, “It was merely a stage for a political party to advertise its glory to the world. Since the Olympics, I haven’t looked at it.”
He Xie (2010)
If designing one large artwork is a masterpiece what do you call a cluster of 2300 miniatures? Weiwei’s He Xie or River Crab is an artistic creation with intricacy at its peak. Designed using porcelain, each of the 2300 crabs features a uniform design displayed in the form of a pile. The installation’s subversive political undertones reflect the government’s attempts to homogenize its citizens while insinuating that under Party leadership, the Chinese people are like helpless crabs caught in a net. Through this piece, Weiwei forces viewers to examine ideas of privacy, boundaries and freedom, all of which hold close to the artist’s own belief system.
Sunflower Seeds (2010)
Very similar in design to the river crabs, the Sunflower Seeds showcase was comparatively larger with 100 million faux sunflowers seeds. Handmade from porcelain in the Chinese town of Jingdezhen, the seed required almost 1,600 artisans to work on them for over two years. Each seed was sculpted using kaolin clay from local mountains. These were then hand-painted and then fired at 1,300 degrees. The idea behind the seed was for viewers to question the contemporary mass manufacturing practices in China where products are often handmade because human labour is cheaper in comparison to machines.
While Sunflower Seeds were on display in London, Ai Wei Wei was arrested and illegally detained at Beijing airport on April 3, 2011. He was kept at a secret location for 81 days where he was watched over 24 hours a day by two guards who were forbidden to communicate with him. Upon his release, Weiwei created what is today one of his most remarkable pieces of visual art, titled ‘S.A.C.R.E.D’.
Using six dioramas: Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy, and Doubt, Weiwei recreated every single detail of his cell. Each was represented through a grim-looking metal cuboid designed with a small hole around shoulder height for viewers to look inside. Inside each cuboid was a different scene from Ai’s imprisonment modelled out of fibreglass. Most of them show three figures: Ai Weiwei himself and two severe guards, dressed in military uniforms. In one diorama they monitor him while he showers, while in another they watch him sleeping, another while he eats and so on. The models put the viewers in a position similar to the guards, giving them insight into the injustice of the Chinese justice system.
Forever Bicycles (2013)
The Forever installation stands tall with many of the artist’s largest installations. Created using 1,179 stainless steel bicycle frames held together in geometrical shapes, Weiwei’s sculpture is a shoutout to the Forever bicycle brand which has been producing bikes in Shanghai since 1940. The Forever bicycle was a primary means of transport for the peasant in China and so the installation is a comment on the widespread mass production that fuels China’s industries.
Before his impressive Water Lilies, Weiwei used lego to create art back in 2014 during his house arrest. The result was a monumental display of portraits featuring activists, prisoners of conscience and advocates of free speech from around the world. There was a total of 176 portraits, each one hand-assembled using thousands of lego bricks. “The portraits paid tribute to the heroes of our time, many of them ordinary citizens who have stood up against injustice in their communities,” said Weiwei.
Circle of Animals, Zodiac Heads (2015)
Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals also called the Zodiac Heads collection included two series a bronze and a gold one. The collection comprised about a dozen gilded bronze sculptures representing animals from the traditional Chinese zodiac. Weiwei got his inspiration from the 12 heads originally located at Yuanming Yuan built outside of Beijing in the 18th and 19th centuries. An imperial retreat of palaces and European-style gardens, these were accessible only to the elites of the 18th century. However, the garden was destroyed and looted by Anglo-French troops in 1860 during the Second Opium War, during which many of the original zodiac heads were lost or displaced. The installation concerns issues of looting, repatriation and cultural heritage while delving into Weiwei’s opinion of the fake vs copy of original creations.