Ai Weiwei IWM: History of Bombs. Little Boy, Fat Man, Daisy Cutter, Snake Eye, Grand Slam, Tomahawk, Tsar Boba, are seemingly innocuous even childlike labels for toys or games. But they are seared into the historic memory and are the actually terrifying, curious official nicknames of objects that are weapons in wars of mass destruction and attrition. The first two are those of the 1945 atomic bombs unleashed on Japan. Daisy Cutter (1970) did just that, flattening swathes through the forests of Vietnam.
These weapons are among those shown true to scale in two-dimensional rendering of fifty different bombs and missiles, dating from 1911 to 2019 from Russia, the US, the UK and Germany, Italy and Israel in a vast floor covering installation by Ai Weiwei (b 1957 in Beijing).
Ai Weiwei is a fabulous choice for the IWM – Marina Vaizey
It is a special commission for the dramatic atrium (a first for a living artist in that space) of the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. Ai Weiwei’s brief was to respond to the building, and his choice was to make a sequence of images that are part of his own on-going explorations of the ways in which contemporary conflicts and disasters impact on human life.
The weapons were developed in parallel with the aircraft that could deliver such deadly cargo., becoming ever more horrifically potent. The first is a grenade-like bomb, the Cipelli, used in the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911 and the first instance of airpower delivering a bomb. The latest is the Kinzhal, 2017, a Russian nuclear-capable air-launched hypersonic missile, and the Hellfire AGM-179 air to ground missile (2019) which is the American weapon delivered by drone thought to have been used to kill the Iranian General Qassem Soleiman. The B61-Mod12 also from 2019 is the latest nuclear bomb from America, estimated to cost $28 million each. Who knows what entries in this deadly race are currently being worked on? And at what cost?
The work is literally directly approachable. We walk over it reading the labels, most just neutral arrangements of letters and numbers, there are only a few nicknames -for the peculiarly neutral shapes of the varied weapons as we progress. The carpeting of bombs is overseen by a real – and appropriately phallic – V-2. A peculiarly contemporary heap of twisted, rusted metal, the latter Jeremy Deller’s 5 March 2007, the remains left by a Baghdad car bomb is also parked in the atrium. Hanging above are real small warplanes. In the distance, the stairs that rise to the upper floors are also covered with images of bombs.
Ai Weiwei’s installation oddly would not look out of place in Tate Modern. But the context here is vital, as the IWM plays on the resonance between historical narrative and art: we witness the ingenuity and even aesthetics of weaponry while simultaneously aware of both heroism and horror. Are we the only species that both prey on itself at the same time as a small minority also tries to save us from our destructive impulses? We almost reluctantly admire the sculptural shapes Ai Weiwei’s installation brings to our attention while recoiling from the implications of the reality of what bombs mean. The dates too, remind us that official and ever more inventive bomb-making – that is by governments – is still more than active.
Ai Weiwei is a fabulous choice for the IWM. Here is an artist known worldwide as someone who fearlessly takes a stance. He is passionately involved with being Chinese, and his Chinese culture and heritage. His father was an activist and poet, and the family had already had during his childhood suffered internal exile to Northern China, living under profoundly harsh circumstances. He still had his studio in Beijing where he lived until 2015 the date of his major exhibition at the Royal Academy; the government had taken away his passport and when it was restored that year he left China. Now he is an exile, even a refugee from his own country. For him, art politics and philosophy are inseparable. And he can be counted on to do the unexpected, something that is intriguing even beautiful to look at, but which makes us go beyond its appearance. He was gaoled in China for his investigations into the human cost of the dreadful earthquakes in Sichuan province which levelled so many poorly built schools. His team named some 5000 school children – only part of the total human fatalities, estimated at 90,000 – who had lost their lives in the avoidable destruction.
The impact of his History of Bombs comes from looking at a sequence of phallic shapes from miniature to massive, like a slightly demented anthology of contemporary sculpture: it is a subtle shock to realise these are bombs.
And you can take the exhibition out of the IWM too; Ai Weiwei has designed ephemera and objects for the shop and a limited edition print. Should you wish to bring some non-destructive bombs home, he has designed with the IWM postcards, magnets, tote bag, mugs and T-shirts. The latest catalogue, Ai Weiwei: Bare Life, is also available.
The framing here of this remarkable work may be a first too for the artist who customarily shows in galleries and museums. Indeed a smaller version was developed last year and shown as wallpaper in an Ai Wewei retrospective Bare Life, in the Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St Louis Missouri. The Imperial War Museum is one of the world’s greatest modern history museums, charting with enormous empathy and simultaneously dispassion, the conflicts from World War One onwards in which Britain and the Commonwealth have been involved, and their human impact from civilians to combatants. The old joke is that its title consists of three difficult words in the English language – Imperial, War and Museum. But the experience of visiting any of its sites is both informative and profoundly affecting, upsetting only as it takes in the human dilemma. On the main London site, in Lambeth, once so appropriately the home of the mental hospital Bethlem (from which bedlam gets its name) the range of subjects that have been explored is enormous. From wartime fashion to the Home Front, the Spanish Civil War to the photographs of Cecil Beaton in wartime (who knew?) in a changing vista of special exhibitions, and permanent galleries dedicated to World War I, World War II and the Holocaust. The IWM also unusually for museums explores on a world scale controversial and complex situations.
Ai Weiwei’s installation also acts as an introduction for several major exhibitions about refugees, including Forced to Flee and Life in a Camp – what alas could be more topical – opening to the public on 24 September.
Ai Weiwei History of Bombs IWM London 1 August 2020 to 24 May 2021