Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds, Tate Modern Turbine Hall, London

4.00

An ode to the lost and forgotten

China’s most famous and politically outspoken artist, Ai Weiwei, has filled the back half of London’s cavernous Turbine Hall with what appears, from a distance, to be a mass of small grey pebbles. In fact these are 100 million tiny sculptures of sunflower seeds, made out of porcelain and hand-painted by skilled artisans in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. The installation is rather unmonumental looking, for something so immense in scale and effort, and brings to mind the work of the late American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who laid out glistening carpets of wrapped sweets in specific measures for viewers to take away and eat (they often weighed the same as his lover, who had died from Aids). Like those, Sunflower Seeds seems simple, but in fact is complicated and stridently political.

The stripy husk shapes are a grey mass – you can crunchily stomp across them – and they appear uniform and featureless until one picks one up and looks at it closely.

Is this about the way we look at China? Do we see a label that says “Made in China” and inwardly shrug at the thought of millions of faceless factory workers? Or about Chinese- government censorship, so much in the news following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo? Do we see those oppressed or killed under the regime of Chairman Mao, cut off before they could grow, or a city full of immensely skilled crafts-people, whose skills are no longer needed in mass-industrialised China? All this, yes, and more.

Though a celebrated artist, ironically Ai Weiwei is perhaps best known for his role as an artistic contributor to the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, for the 2008 Olympic Games. Since then he has

been a voice of dissent, demanding free speech and democracy for the people of China. His conflict with China’s government came to head over his investigations of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the deaths of many children in schools in the disaster. Following that, he was badly beaten by police, suffering a brain tumour as a result. Ai’s concern with these lives cut short is present in Sunflower Seeds.

The Turbine Hall is perhaps the hardest commission to fulfil in this country. One might argue that this is not an intensely visual piece of work in the same way that Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas (2003) and Olafur Elisasson’s The Weather Project (2004) were. Ai Weiwei knows how to make big, sparkly things, installations that wow with bright lights and grandiose scale. But this is not one of these, and it is all the better for it. In recent years, with his campaigning, Ai has shown himself to be an artist who is above all concerned with the individual and their relationship to society. This, in the end, is rather a melancholy piece. It allows us to think about those who are repressed, and of those flowers that are killed off before they have the chance to grow and bloom bright. But it’s also about our responsibilities to one another, and the energy we share, and so it contains a seed of hope. Make that 100 million seeds of hope.



To 2 May 2011 ( www.tate.org.uk/modern)

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade