Saturday, 29 May 2010

Ai Weiwei, 'Sunflower Seeds', Tate Modern: a second look

Photo: Margaret Sharrow, 2011

Six months on, the hundred thousand sit, wait patiently. Only the ones on top are seen, and a few at the edges are all that can be examined in any detail. The rest are invisible, but known, present.

I have already reviewed this installation close to its opening, and now, having revisited it, I continue my tradition of reviewing exhibitions near their closing dates.

The seeds extend over a huge area, like a grey carpet when seen from a distance. It is possible to walk along one side, for the length of the installation. This is the compromise. After the first few euphoric days of the installation when the public walked over the seeds and could pick them up, as Ai intended, the gallery, in consultation with Ai, decided to keep the public off the installation because of the lead dust rising up. Of course the workers making the seeds, although some wore face masks, must have been exposed to far more dust.

On this visit, having more time, I was able to learn more about these workers. Adjacent to the installation are a video documentary with seating area, and a room of touch screens where you can post a video question or answer to Ai Weiwei, in either English or Chinese.

Photo of Tate documentary, Margaret Sharrow, 2011

The documentary shows the stages of production of the sunflower seeds, in the Chinese town of Jingdezhen, which has for seventeen hundred year been producing porcelain for Chinese emperors. First the kaolin is mined: men are shown pushing rail carts filled with huge chunks of the stuff out of the earth by hand, as if Welsh coal miners of the nineteenth century. Then the rocks are ground by log spikes powered by a waterwheel, again reminiscent of nineteenth century Wales. After a mechanical mixing process, the porcelain is poured into moulds that produce around two dozen seeds at once, growing like berries off a central stalk. Removed from their stalks, fired in the glorious sunset light of a large kiln, and sorted, they are ready for the ladies who paint the stripes, either in factories with groups of women at a number of tables, or production at home, with families working for short time periods in between childcare and cooking. A bit of tumbling, to give a more natural finish, then the seeds are packed in enormous sacks ready for shipping to the gallery, where they are spread around on the floor by facemasked assistants with rakes, as if tending a Japanese wabi sabi style garden. Throughout Ai is shown overseeing, photo documenting, chatting, interacting, and generally hanging around. He says that the Chinese workers, though delighted to have the work, really didn't understand what the seeds were for, and couldn't conceive of them as forming an art installation. Does it matter if the workers making the piece don't understand what it is for? Does it matter if people looking at the installation don't understand it? Does it matter if they understand it, but don't like it? Ai accepts the incomprehension of the porcelain workers, who, unlike Tate visitors, are not living in a local culture with a place for contemporary art. He says in the documentary, 'I always think art is a tool to set up new questions. To create a basic structure which can be open to possibilities is the most interesting part of my work. I want people who don't understand art to understand what I'm doing.' Here he trails off into a wordless reverie. Most of us wandering Tate Modern won't have memories of Mao represented as the sun to whom all the people, seen as sunflowers, turn for sustenance, or even of sharing unshelled sunflower seeds as a snack. But most of the visitors to Tate Modern would have the experience of crossing the Millennium Bridge, swept along in a never ending current of people, or of cramming themselves into the last possible space on a full Tube, ducking head to avoid decapitation by the slam of impersonal curved doors. One of many, many, many... yet each individual. Handcrafted, you might even say. I was distressed to hear on the radio this morning (4 April 2011) that Ai has again run into difficulties with the Chinese authorities, this time being stopped as he attempted to fly to Hong Kong. He may be unable to respond to tweets and video postings for a while.

Ai Weiwei, 'Sunflower Seeds', Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London, 12 October 2010 – 2 May 2011

More photographs of the exhibition and its interpretation on my Facebook page

You can view the documentary at the Tate website,

Ai Weiwei answers the public’s questions, and asks some of his own

Ai Weiwei news link: PBS Newshour, 4 April 2011

Guardian video interview with Ai Weiwei, 'Life is never guaranteed to be safe', 18 March 2010

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