Ai Weiwei, Tate Modern, London

Why should millions of specks of porcelain upset the Chinese? Because Ai Weiwei never treads carefully and neither, it seems, do the patrons of Tate Modern

On the left-hand side of the far end of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, an invisible door, painted to blend with the wall, opens a crack and a man – a mechanic, maybe? – crunches his way across the space to a matching door on the other side and disappears.

It is both an entirely prosaic and an oddly moving moment, the latter on account of the crunching. This, the sound of shingle on a beach or perhaps of gravelled paths in a cemetery, is caused by the dislodging under the mechanic’s feet of more than a hundred million tiny artworks, almost two for every man, woman and child in Britain.

But now, from the bridge of the Turbine Hall, which is as close as you will get in future to Ai Weiwei’s great work, below is only silence. Dust raised by the feet of visitors on the first two days has led to its being closed to walkers, which is a great shame. For this latest installation in the Tate’s Unilever Series was, to my mind, the best so far.

The tiny works of art, each hand-painted in porcelain and different from all the others, are collectively called Sunflower Seeds, which is what they have been made to look like. For Ai, their maker – or, at least, the man who had them made – these have a specific significance. During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao, like Louis XIV before him, had himself depicted as the sun, the faces of his 900 million sunflower people turned inexorably to his heliotropic face. At the same time, recalls Ai in an accompanying film, sunflower seeds were the one foodstuff you could be sure of finding during the frequent hungers of Mao’s reign, a token not just of survival but of sociability.

On a political level, the seeds were a symbol of repression; on a human one, they offered a rare opportunity for kindness, the sharing of a tiny plenty. In Ai's art – an art heartily disliked by the current government of the People's Republic of China, whose police have censored his work and arrested and beaten Ai himself – these two opposing sunflowers resolve into one. Sunflower Seeds is both almost pervertedly grand – 150 tons of handcrafted ceramics, covering 1,000 square metres of Tate Modern's floor to a depth of 10cm – and irreducibly simple. Each seed offers a kind of hope – of food, of kindness – and yet each is like a minute (and inedible) stone monument, so that the work is at once both lively and deathly. In those contradictions of massive numbers and individuality, of humility and grandeur, happiness and pain, Sunflower Seeds is like China itself.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this latest Turbine Hall commission is not the number of its commas and zeros, the fact that it took the 1,600 bemused porcelain workers of the city of Jingdezhen two years to make, but Ai's own place in it. To do what he has done – to hijack the entire economy of a town, to bend the one-time makers of imperial porcelain to his conceptual will – is to behave like an emperor, or like Mao Zedong. As ever in Ai's work, the artist is centre stage, running vast risks – political, of course, but also moral, risks of image and identity. Logic tells us that these things cannot be immanent in dead clay, no matter that that clay has been moulded and decorated and baked into seeds. And yet something of Ai's own contradictions are there in this new work, in its paradoxical power.

One of these paradoxes is that there is no real need to know anything about the Cultural Revolution to "get" Sunflower Seeds, or even a need to know about China or Ai Weiwei. The man who crunched across the work when I arrived repeats the trip in reverse, right to left. Something about the potentially dehumanising scale of Ai's work humanises him: I am reminded of a peasant picking his way home through the snow of a 16th-century Netherlands landscape.

For all their maximalism, the seeds, seen collectively, are also minimalist: square-edged, in line with the taupe-and-steel brutalism of the Tate Modern's architecture. I count myself lucky to have made the short Long March across it beforepublic access was modified. As you set off, Ai's seeds shifted beneath your feet; as you looked at them, so did their meaning. They were graves and life, despair and hope. And they are still those things, and still wonderful, among the best installations I have seen.

Sunflower Seeds is no longer the social thing it was meant to be, and that, as I say, is a shame, but not fatal. In is the nature of public artworks – Richard Serra's Tilted Arc is a good example – that you cannot know how they are going to work until the public uses them. We may not see Sunflower Seeds as Ai meant us to, but that does not mean we should not see it at all. Go if you possibly can.

To 2 May 2011 (020-7887 8888)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent takes to the water with Canaletto and His Rivals

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
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.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones