Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds, Tate Modern Turbine Hall, London
An ode to the lost and forgotten
Wednesday 13 October 2010
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)
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 3 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 4 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 5 UK weather: Britain braced for snow to replace sun as arctic air mass moves in
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove