Saturday, 29 May 2010

Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds: a field of could-be sunflowers... but not a beach

Photo: Ai Weiwei's 'Sunflower Seeds', Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2010.

I must admit I was quite excited at the prospect of the next Turbine Hall installation at Tate Modern, having enjoyed Mirosław Balka earlier in the year. And there was certainly quite a buildup: I'd read the article about Ai in Tate Etc, and heard the folk on Radio 4's Front Row enthusing about how much it was like a beach, how people were walking on it, sitting and lying down and making sandcastles out of the 100,000,000 ceramic sunflower seeds.

So imagine my disappointment to discover, first of all, that by the fourth day of the exhibition, access to the work was barred (i.e. you couldn't walk on it as Ai intended), and second, that it didn't fill nearly as much of the Turbine Hall as I'd imagined. This second disillusionment was entirely a product of my own fevered imagination, being a hazard of getting much of my art news from the radio: I had formed an image in my mind of a Turbine Hall packed nearly to the rafters with seeds, that were slightly larger than life size and made of unpainted grey porcelain. This image persisted despite the fact that I had watched Newsnight with Ai interviewed standing on his work, right there in the public library on iPlayer, so plenty of witnesses that I did not see Ai brushing his head against the ceiling. In fact one hundred million precisely lifesized porcelain sunflower seeds barely covers the floor to a depth of four inches (10 cm). I suppose a 30-plus metre depth of sunflower seeds would constitute a genuine health and safety hazard (tabloid headlines spring to mind: 'man, 46, drowns in art'), but porcelain dust? Surely visitors' time on the piece could be limited, or misters employed at designated times to settle the dust, or we could all be forced to read copious safety warnings before launching ourselves into the unknown. I appreciate that Tate must protect itself from possible lawsuits, but somehow the same gallery allowed us to experience Cildo Meireles' powerful installation that involved potential asphyxiation from impenetrable clouds of talcum powder in a confined space.

All this discussion of access to the work is bound to overshadow the meaning of the work, which had shown its potential to generate joy, playfulness and happy seaside memories in a culture that does not have the same associations with the sunflower seed as the Chinese (even if we snack on sunflower seeds, most of us buy them shelled). These pieces are meticulously crafted. A hundred million, all superficially the same yet subtly detailed in minor variations - they are extremely accurate replicas, stripey and unglazed, an amiable attendant having let me hold a few in my hand. Each one inevitably representing - a person, so less than one tenth the population of China, two thirds would represent the population of Britain with the leftover part accounting for, I don't know, annual tourists to Britain. Or maybe just annual tourists to London, I'm not sure. Each one quiet and humble. In fact many were obviously disappointed by the sheer ordinariness of it all. 'Is that it?' one woman cried. She might have been happier with ten thousand sunflowers in bloom, bright faces replicating Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project, shown in the Turbine Hall in 2003-2004). Of course the seeds are the potential for a thousand times more sunflowers. And they are also like the infamous butter mountains and wine lakes of the European Union's notorious Common Agricultural Policy, a superabundance of food in a world where so many do not have enough to eat.

Given Ai's track record as an artist who is largely an activist (in some lights, perhaps an activist who is largely an artist), readings similar to this last may lie closer to the artist's intention. Millions dressed identically in drab Mao suits, five year plans to produce mountains of food to feed the millions, to produce grey metal to launch China's industries in the collective fervour of the past. Millions going to work in suits in the booming present, or perhaps millions of political prisoners over the decades, if prisoners wear grey? Millions of mobile phones, iPods, and all the other silver consumer goods. Millions of tons of rubbish, that will be left by the empty shells of seeds, and of consumer goods discarded. And while the numbers trapped by recent earthquakes are far less, that grey horde is never far from Ai's mind.

Still, all these possible readings have come to me after the event. When I was there, I just wanted to play on a beach. And so I sat forlornly behind the barrier tape like a kid at the pier on a rainy day, glumly tossing my sample seeds back into the multitude.

Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds continues at the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London, until 2 May 2011 (according to the Tate link below; the bimonthly Tate magazine says 25 April 2011). Free.

Check with the Tate page for latest updates on the access situation

I wrote this review, then I read the others below, which are worth a look for further contextualisation, to learn that over a thousand people were employed in a Chinese pottery-making town to create the seeds by hand, and that Ai also sees the work as being like the mass of small contributions on Twitter:

Adrian Serle

Charlotte Higgins

23 October 2010

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