Ai WeiWei (1957-present). ‘Sunflower Seeds’, porcelain, 2010.
The Unilever Series is an ongoing commission that is displayed in the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern. The most recent addition to this series is Ai WeiWei’s ‘Sunflower Seeds’. Each of the 100million porcelain seeds has been produced through traditional methods in a Chinese town famous for their porcelain. This is a staggering effort, and one which has saved a town from financial ruin. Ai WeiWei’s Sunflower Seeds are situated clearly within the conceptual art tradition and invoke a number of themes: mass-production, individualism, what does it mean to be ‘made in China?’,and, perhaps, most significantly, the lives of those who lived through the Cultural Revolution in China.
Though the scale is impressive my recent trip to the exhibition left me a little disappointed. Whereas early visitors were able to walk on, sit, touch and feel the seeds, recent patrons have only been allowed to look. Guards and an ankle-high wire fence now clearly demarcates the space between the viewer and the work of art. Shortly after the exhibition opened, a British reported asked whether it was wrong to steal one of the Turbine Halls’ seeds? Apparently other people were asking the same question; because repeated ‘theft’ was one of the reasons given for this barrier. Additionally Health & Safety concerns have also been cited. Apparently, as people walked amongst the seeds a toxic dust (rising from the painted porcelain seeds) was being inhaled by observers. And yet, that Health & Safety led to erecting and enforcing a protective barrier undermines, for me, the single most significant part of this piece of art.
This sculpture allowed us to touch, feel and sense the individuality of each seed while absorbing the impressive collectivity that they formed. Moreover, if these seeds are to represent the lives of those who suffered and died under an oppressive regime then it is appropriate that viewers can engage their lives by handling them, by being amongst them, in short, to be touched by them. There is a real significance in this prohibition, especially for those of us in the West who are frequently bombarded by images of suffering and pain from all over the world. We are to stand, to look. We are to be impressed and perhaps overwhelmed by the significance of the scene; but too often we fail to fully absorb the lives of these others who are alien and incomprehensible to us. WeiWei’s Sunflowers now re-enacts how suffering can too readily be sequestered.
I am confident this was not the intended meaning of Ai WeiWei’s work nor of the recent prohibition, but I left the gallery with a renewed commitment to ‘mourn with those that mourn’. I left desiring to be more compassionate, even if that meant crossing certain boundaries and placing myself at some (often negligible) risk.