100 million tiny handmade, hand painted, porcelain sunflower seeds are currently scattered across the barren, concrete floor of the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, London, UK.

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As a fine, delicate mist is to a hail much like porcelain is to concrete, the 10cm (4in) high layer of seeds is camouflaged both in material and colour and the installation passes under the radar. If it weren’t for the solitary gallery assistant patrolling around the no man’s land between the seeds and the rope, the visitor may not even notice that the seeds were there.

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Yet once eye contact is made, it cannot be broken. The solid sea of seeds stretches out far into the distance. One vast army of work made up from millions and millions of tiny individual components. No two seeds are the same.

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Visitors were not allowed to walk on the seeds for fear of turning the massive space into one giant pestle and mortar. The installation may have also slowly reduced in size over time had visitors been allowed to walk on the seeds and collect personal souvenirs. Maybe visitors would have at least dug their hands into the installation, if only just to privately savour the pleasurable sensation.

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In a much smaller darkened room with long benches seating about 30 people, a short documentary that accompanies the installation is played on a loop. The process of manufacturing the seeds, the environment in which they are manufactured and the impact of the project upon the local community is covered by the artist himself, Ai Weiwei.

The project is located in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, over a month’s walk away from the capital and Weiwei suggests that everyone knows someone who is involved in making the seeds. Ai Weiwei leads the camera around the rural looking streets filled with mixtures of 50 year old workshops and homes. The roads are rough-paved tracks and although Jingdezhen is 3 times larger than the UK city of Sheffield, it is made to look more like a village.

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Maybe that’s because of the type of people that Weiwei employed on the project. As every seed needed to be hand painted, some of the employees would take home carrier bags of seeds to sit and paint them while looking after their small children or ancient elders. It was a project that anyone could do and fit in around their spare time. Others would gather together and work communally. Maybe the documentary was filmed in the more spacious suburbs?

Even if this was true and despite all the participants having at least one item of western-branded but probably Chinese made clothing, there was still a comparatively high level of poverty within the community. It was clear that the work that Weiwei was providing was indeed an appreciated source of income.

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Would the installation have been as impressive if there was just a single seed on show in the Turbine Hall? Maybe it could have been a giant inflatable sunflower seed reaching all the way to the ceiling. It would have been easier for Weiwei – he could have made the single seed all by himself. There would have been no need to organise all the people to help make the seeds and no need to transport them all the way from China.

Here, Weiwei provides the narration on the consumer orientated world that exists today. A world in which there are no barriers to desire as long as the consumer is prepared to ignore that resources must be taken from one person to be given to another.

The 100 million seeds are all completely different and unique, yet ultimately are forced into a fixed space as one giant monster. Would Weiwei be commenting on the power of his native government or the potential power of his fellow people?

The artist is well known for his activism and for investigating government corruption and cover-ups. Examples include the corruption scandal in the low quality construction of Sìchuān schools that collapsed during earthquakes back in 2008. In August 2009 he was beaten by the Police for his role in exposing this scandal and had to undergo emergency brain surgery for injuries sustained in the attack.

Weiwei was arrested again on the 3rd April 2011 as he tried to board a plane to Hong Kong. He hasn’t been heard from since then.

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Along with the seeds and the dark room in which the documentary is played, there is another room in which one can record questions or messages to Weiwei. Some people have no idea who the artist is and gleefully mess around in front of the cameras, while other, more sombre people are aware of the fact that the artist is either in mortal danger or already dead.

The videos can be viewed here.

The Tate Modern states that ‘in response to Ai Weiwei’s arrest and detainment, leading museums around the world have joined and launched an online petition to express concern for Ai’s freedom and call for his release, including Guggenheim Museum; the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD); Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate, London; Gwangju Biennale, Korea; and the Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Paris. We sincerely hope that our collective action using social networking sites – Ai Weiwei’s favored medium of social sculpture – will promote Ai’s liberty and the principle of free creative expression’.

The online petition can be signed here. Please sign it immediately.

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