The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds

12 October, 2010 – 2 May, 2011

Tate Modern, London, UK

There are particular art spaces that are difficult to survive. The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, for example, can offer inspiration for “big thoughts” but can easily present a trap. And this is not entirely the fault of its intimidating vastness but is perhaps more due to it being part of a powerful institutional body such as Tate. Spaces like these have their contextual ghosts roaming around, always out on some unfinished business. The 11th commission from the Unilever Series, given to the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, signals the diversions a museum can impose on the original intentions of a work, but also points to a curious outcome where a work seems to have one mind and the artist – another, especially when it comes to compromises with institutional concerns.

Ai’s installation Sunflower Seeds is fairly simple to describe. Visually, the space remains empty, while in fact it is covered with 100 million of sunflower seeds made of hand painted porcelain, forming a sort of carpet a few inches high. The remaining stripe of floor, the walls and seeds blend in a monotonous gray color, accentuating the modesty inherent in these tiny little seeds. From here, it is like a book written through the rhetoric of accumulation – facts and interpretations pile up over the tranquility of these small objects, enriching them with new metaphors and meaning but at the same time, rendering indistinct what is to be captured. The safety distance demarcated by the barriers still allows visitors to take a closer look, to play with it (such as use the seeds to write their names) but for those lucky ones who came in the first week after the opening, the work experienced was something else. The artist, who in the first press releases and interviews stated clearly his intentions for his installation to be “democratically” walked on, for the seeds to crash under someone’s heels, accepting even the possibility and temptation one would have to steal a few of them (this being the main worry for the institution). Allowed to fantasize, the beholder would then imagine it to slowly disappear as the exhibition progressed –each one of those unique porcelain pieces could have made its way into the life of an individual. Thus the work’s initial metaphor – the seed representing the uniqueness in the middle of the mass grounded to the floor. That mass we imagine able to make a difference, but that ambiguously could be also lending itself to governmental statistics based on the fear of small numbers; the minorities of voices are crushed under the weight of the “vertebral” communist regime of China as opposed to the “cellular” structured globalized world. So when the work was closed and contained by museum barriers (the dust coming from the crushed porcelain was deemed damaging to health) and when the wall texts were altered to the new statements, the question we could ask is: if the artist says tout va bien with these changes, is it really alright? Is it still the same ghost in the shell?

Another strong point of institutional concerns entering the picture can be felt in the unusual (for the artist) video documentation of the production process. For an activist such as Ai Weiwei, it felt quite apologetic. Emphasize felt on how happy the factory workers were to receive higher wages after the city of Jingdezhen, the best producer of porcelain in China, was on the verge of bankrupt. Exploitation of cheap labor, as someone would inevitably associate with Ai’s piece, is apparently exorcised here. But instead of emanating generosity, it further amplified the dynamics of stereotyping with this need of explanation. And finally, to encompass seemingly more of the artist’s practice – strongly connected with the new possibilities of globalization offered by the internet, the section One-to-One with the artist staged this “democratic”, confession-like opportunity to ask or answer questions to and from the artists. Under the theme “Politics and society” (curiously), there was a video capturing two cheerful young girls asking Ai the following: “Hi, Ai Weiwei. So where do you think these go?” holding one sunflower seed each. Whether they realized it or not, it is good question we would expect the artist to answer.

Snejana Krasteva

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