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

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick