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2010.12.25 Sat, by Translated by: 宋京
Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” at Tate Modern Turbine Hall
11th Commission in the Unilever Series. October 12, 2010–May 11, 2011.

It is surprisingly difficult to tie down polemical figures. As soon as one attempts to define what Ai Weiwei’s art and practice are, the counter-examples echo around you.

Here is my first proposition: Ai’s art has nothing to do with concrete objects.

To the extent that they are employed, it is either as a tool or camouflage, material wrapping for a conceptual game.

Second proposition: to the extent Ai has an identifiable oeuvre, it is concerned only with social and political critique. Its primary purpose is critical subversion, dialectics taken to its Kafkaesque extreme. Ultimately, though, its question is simple: why are we doing this?

The objects traded in galleries are the least of his activity, at most gewgaws of distraction, a method of subsidizing his art, independence, and self-expression.

“Sunflower Seeds” is a Ulyssean maze of references to Minimalism, Chinese history (distant and recent), trade, economics and sociology. Beginning with the space, Tate Modern was renovated by the star Swiss architects, Herzog & de Meuron, with whom Ai collaborated on Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium. The building was previously a power station and the gallery displaying “Sunflower Seeds” is the Turbine Hall, a space now synonymous with giant installations by leading international artists, such as Louise Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor, and Bruce Nauman. (1) If not a pantheon for great artists, then the Turbine Hall commission is certainly a laurel crown. And now Ai Weiwei gets to wear it. (2) Meanwhile the “Birds Nest” sits largely unused.

The space in the Turbine Hall appears empty. The 100 million hand-made seeds are a dark grey, so they recede into the concrete floor. Thus the first impression is of nothing. Closer up and the seeds become visible (albeit now off-limits to walking but we will come to that shortly). The reference here is to the Cuban-US artist, Felix Gonzalez Torres, who fled from his native communist home to America, becoming a refugee in New York. The reason he fled was his sexuality, homosexuality not being tolerated in Cuba. Gonzalez-Torres’ signature piece was piles of sparkling foil-wrapped lollies, which viewers were encouraged to take. Of course there were other references there too, such as HIV/Aids, production and consumption, and minimalism. Tate, however, requested that visitors not take the seeds. But of course they would! They’re meant to! Ai talks of how as a child, like many people in China, he would carry sunflower seeds in his pockets. With famine common (among other privations endured before and during the Cultural Revolution), this snack became a primary source of food.  It is also the snack you have chatting with friends; it is communal. Only tea could carry similar connotations (but different). Indeed, the abundance of seeds would appear even to encourage theft. Ai is encouraging visitors to take a little sustenance, to steal from a state museum—subversion for the people, by the people.

Before Britain’s health and safety authorities stopped people from walking on the seeds (due to the risk of inhaling the dust which arises from the unvarnished porcelain seeds being ground up by the footsteps of visitors), one was able to walk, lie on, kick, pile, or hold (and steal) the seeds.

Propaganda images often depicted Chairman Mao as the sun, with the people turning towards him like sunflowers. Only here, there are not merely 100 flowers but 100 million seeds.

Then there’s the reference to sunflowers themselves. Many artists have adopted the image of sunflowers regarding Mao’s “Hundred Flowers Movement” (百花运动) — although they were not only associated with this campaign. (3) Propaganda images often depicted Chairman Mao as the sun, with the people turning towards him like sunflowers. Only here, there are not merely 100 flowers but 100 million seeds. This grey sea of seeds conjures up other minimalist memorials, notably Berlin’s equally grey “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust-Mahnmal)”, designed by the architect Peter Eisenman, as well as the Israeli artist Micha Ullman’s “Bibliothek” (1995) in Berlin’s Babelplatz, the site of the infamous Nazi book burning in 1933. The installation, illuminated at night, comprises an empty room full of empty bookshelves and recessed into the square. In order to look into the room, people are forced to bow their heads. (4) In the case of the Holocaust Memorial, “Sunflower Seeds,” and Maya Lin’s “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” in Washington, D.C., the sheer numbers are meant to overwhelm, and so they should, and they do. The 100,000,000 stands in for the 1.3 billion, about one seed for every thirteen people in China. And while seeds represent life, or at least its potential, these are porcelain seeds, as fruitful as the terracotta army of Xi’an (of the first Qin Emperor). Every one is individually made, every one an individual piece, and looks as good as identical to its 99,999,999 siblings. Yes, they could be counted but who would want to. In terms of the human capacity to understand these numbers, we might as well be looking at the infinite. Or at China. Amise-en-abyme of otherness opens up—this China thing could be a trap. Where fine domestic crockery is still referred to as ‘china,’ where economic bulls let loose in China-shops have brought the world to chaos, these millions of seed-like porcelain lozenges might just be another manipulation in the trade imbalance. Maybe the dust was even deliberate.

The seeds are genuine art but also genuine fakes—Ai’s calling card, not least because the pronunciation of “fake” in Chinese, “Fa Ke,” sounds like the word ‘fuck’. (5) Is this connection random? It is not as significant as other matters already described, and like them, could just as easily be included in an endnote. But that itself is a point. Multitudinous (cross)-references are not only part of Ai’s aesthetic style but may also be seen as a rhetorical strategy, with many points opening up many discussions. As a post-impressionist, Van Gogh was inspired by Eastern (particularly Japanese) painting and composition, whose techniques were first introduced to Europe principally through the trade in porcelain, particularly Chinese porcelain, the primary intermediaries of which were Holland and England (Delft Blue porcelain to this day often quotes Chinese imagery). This was one of the sources of the Western notion of “Orientalism,” the exoticism of the “East” (meaning everything sensually attractive east of Vienna). The restricted trade in porcelain was of course one of the reasons that some western powers, including Britain, prompted the Opium Wars during China’s period of ossification and weakness in the nineteenth century. Or more precisely, the imbalance of trade, with China (allegedly) exporting too much, importing too little—it sounds familiar, doesn’t it?. It’s as though Ai is exporting porcelain (culture) and watching it circulate, like the Chinese Renminbi itself (and these seeds might be understood as a type of currency). So there is an astringent irony in access to the seeds being closed due to a potential dust inhalation risk. The seeds were (mass) produced (by hand) in Jingdezhen (景德镇), a town which has produced porcelain of note since the end of the Han Dynasty in the third century. Oh, the repetitiveness! It took some 1,600 people two-and-a-half years to manufacture 100,000,000 hand-made and hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds. Were the workers exploited? Well, the work’s no more repetitive than thousands of other jobs the world relies upon for its iPods, cars and clothes (and as far as we know, no ceramicist in Jingdezhen threw themselves out of a factory window due to overwork). Whether Ai’s commission “rescued” the town is another matter. Jingdezhen may not be world famous but is very famous in China. (6)

The vehicle for these different conversations is of course Minimalism, or more precisely a particularly grandiloquent strand of it. With some 100 million pieces, apparently without edition numbers, it is hard to determine where it begins and ends — how many pieces would it need to lose before it ceased to be “Sunflower Seeds”? This is repetition on a grand scale, a composition that is a multitude of (fake) copies, and which ironically would be impossible to copy without the time (including of the Jingdezhen ceramicists) and resources of Ai Weiwei and Tate Modern, the hard-to-fake fake. Like Gonzalez-Torres’ sweet installations, “Sunflower Seeds” has no real edges. You could bulldozer the seeds to one side, no doubt kicking-up dust. And what price does an individual seed have anyway? (The avid student could compare this with Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God” (2007), a platinum cast of an eighteenth-century skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds.)

“Mass-Minimalism” of this sort has some of its most famous roots in floor works, such as Carl Andre’s “Equivalent VIII” (1966), a proportionate double-layer oblong composed of sixty plain bricks or, even more appositely, his “144 Tin Squares” (1975) upon which one can walk. (7) In Minimalism the work itself is not the work; interaction with it is what matters (unsurprisingly this would eventually lead off into Conceptualism, with the best of the minimalists really conceptualists, e.g. Richard Long). Minimalist works are inherently anthropomorphic, and this can lead to interesting results. In Berlin we might compare both Menashe Kadishman’s “Shalechet—Fallen Leaves” (2008) at the Jewish Museum and Rudolf Stingel’s installation “Live at the Neue National Galerie” earlier this year, whose title plays on the confusion between the exhibitionist “live-on-show” and the homely “living.” Kadishman scattered thousands of small, oxidized iron faces in one of the interior voids in Daniel Liebeskind’s deconstructivist wonder of a building. Walking upon them—which viewers are encouraged but reluctant to do—produces a disturbing crunching noise. By contrast, Stingel’s work introduced a vast “wall-to-wall” carpet into the iconic glass entry hall of Mies van der Rohe’s modernist masterpiece, covered with a homey, curly-wurly baroque design. Ai himself recently experimented with carpets in his solo show “So Sorry” at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. The carpet’s design was an exacting trompe l’oeil of the aged marble tiles underneath it in a hall of the museum, a prime example of kitsch overbearing fascist architecture and where in 1937 the Nazis held their infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition. The effect: an eerie silence where previously there were eerie echoes. (8) (In both Ai’s and Stingel’s respective pieces, there is also the echo of a cliché, a kitsch cover-up, with history being “swept under the carpet,” but Stingel’s is probably deliberate whereas Ai’s seems rather to demonstrate art’s common conflict between intention and interpretation).

Thus “Sunflower Seeds” is that strange beast, epic-minimalism. They crunch and turn to dust as we walk(ed) upon them and now can only be viewed from a (healthy & safe) distance. But “Sunflower Seeds” also confounds itself, because really Ai Wei Wei would like nothing better than for visitors to walk away with the seeds, every one, leaving nothing but a contradiction in terms, an empty turbine hall.

Now we have a counterpoint. In celebration of his new studio in Shanghai being demolished, he invited 10,000 guests to a party there (no doubt 100 million would have taken too long to organize). The studio had been built at the invitation of the Shanghai government. It has been demolished on the basis of a lack of planning permission. At his party Ai wished to serve his guests 10,000 river crabs (河蟹 héxiè), as opposed to harmony (和谐 héxié). The government put pressure on Ai to cancel his party but he refused. So he was put under house arrest (Ai is reported as saying the officers were quite apologetic about it). The party went ahead despite Ai being kept at home. All the while Ai has been busy tweeting and blogging about the experience (at the party, porcelain seeds were handed out to anyone with a Twitter account). Is this any less art than “Sunflower Seeds”? In fact, might it be seen as lyrical complement to it? Recall that his most famous works involve a shifting of perspective, in all its meanings. Thus the “Study of Perspective” series involved photographs of the artist’s outstretched arm and finger in front of iconic buildings around the world, including the Eiffel Tower and the White House. “Fairytale” (2007), referencing the 1001 Arabian Nights wherein Queen Scheherazade narrated stories to her husband for 1,001 nights under threat of execution should she once fail, involved 1001 ordinary Chinese people visiting Documenta in Kassel, Germany. Even Ai Weiwei’s ancient Chinese vases, whether the performance “Dropping the Urn” (1995) or vases dipped in lurid paints of “Coloured Vases” (2006) involve a transformation of circumstance and value. Of course, all of these works, including the vases (definitely including the vases), are socio-political critiques.

The materials are seizures in an argument but not one with art. It is provocative and subversive and at its heart it is concerned with people. The complex and disparate elements of “Sunflower Seeds” are merely part of the conversation Ai is trying to bring people to, whether by curating, writing, building, designing, painting, sculpting, copying, recording, speaking, blogging, or joking. He is asking everyone: what are we doing? And as you gaze over that lifeless sea of grey and inedible seeds, with their fine dust particles ground from one another under every footstep, that means you.