Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has said he “would like” to return to his home country if the state does not put him in “jail secretly again”.
The 65-year-old, who worked on the design of Beijing’s Olympic stadium and filled a hall in the Tate Modern with porcelain sunflower seeds, will open what has been described as his first design-focused exhibition at the Design Museum in London on Friday.
Ai Weiwei: Making Sense features artwork, half of which Weiwei said has not been displayed before, made with unconventional materials including Lego blocks, broken porcelain, teapot spouts and prehistoric tools.
When asked at a press event on Wednesday if he would return to China, Weiwei said: “I would like to go back to China if they don’t take my personal (freedom) away, if I (can) express myself freely (and if they do not) put me in jail secretly again.
Weiwei, who has long been an outspoken critic of China, was detained by the authorities for nearly three months in 2011.
He has lived in exile since 2015, including in Germany, and has spent time in the UK where his son studies.
Weiwei also recently settled in the countryside of Portugal.
When asked about the trajectory of modern China, he said China’s rise is an “important factor in changing the game” which had seen western ideas of democracy flourish.
He added the state is strong “enough to have their own interpretation” about its place in the world.
Weiwei added: “I don’t know how long China will succeed… It’s like a game. So far, I think China is still going strong.”
While in Germany, Weiwei also taught at Berlin University of the Arts for three years.
He added: “I quit, because students… are lazy, and they’re just dumb but also I cannot teach someone who doesn’t want to learn. It’s not possible.
“In China, teaching is such a high position, it (is) said your teacher will one day be your father for your whole life.”
He said it is a “pity” the younger generation is “cut off” from the “struggles” of the past.
Weiwei added: “Of course, nobody wants to have any difficulty in general, I mean, they just want to (have a) comfortable life, but (it) will paralyse our (minds).”
Other highlights in his new installation include a Han dynasty urn emblazoned with a Coca-Cola logo, a worker’s hard hat cast in glass, a sculpture of an iPhone cut out of a jade axe-head and pandemic-inspired marble toilet paper sculptures.
Explaining the concept of the installations, the Design Museum’s chief curator Justin McGuirk said it explores Weiwei “rediscovering lost forms” as China’s accelerated building development continues.
The 1,600 Stone Age tools highlight the origins of design rooted in survival as thousands of destroyed porcelain sculptures – from when Weiwei’s studio was demolished by the Chinese state in 2018 – can also be found on the floor in a rectangle shape.
Hanging at the side of the space is Water Lilies, based on French impressionist painter Claude Monet’s painting which uses Lego bricks to showcase an idealised landscape.
It also sees a dark portal in the right representing the underground dugout in Xinjiang Province where Weiwei grew up with his father in exile in the 1960s.
The Ai Weiwei: Making Sense exhibition will run from April 7 to July 30 at the Design Museum in London.