On Tuesday I managed to get along to Tate Modern to see the newest installation in their Unilever series. The work is called Sunflower Seeds, for obvious reasons. The huge turbine hall has been filled with 100million porcelain sunflower seeds, moulded and painted to look like the real thing. And I loved it.
Sunflower Seeds is really simple and massively complicated at the same time. As you walk into the turbine hall, you just see an expanse of grey. It’s only when you get up close that you realise it’s made of seeds. And it’s only when you pick on up that you find out they’re made out of hand-painted porcelain. It’s a huge work, but it’s also tiny – the attention to detail is pretty formidable.
The seeds have been hand crafted in the southern Chinese city of Jingdezhen, an area famous for its pottery. There’s an accompanying documentary which shows the effort used in producing them, but then they’re thrown on the floor and trampled. The seeds partly represent the manufacturing and export for which China is so well-known. But they have added significance. During Mao Tse-Tung’s time in power, there was widespread famine in China, and sunflower seeds were one of the few foodstuffs available. And in the violent Cultural Revolution in the 60s, Mao Zedung was often likened to the sun, and the chinese people to sunflowers. So the seeds can also be seen to represent the harsh realities of life for the Chinese people under communism, and a monument to a people and a reality which is often hidden away from Western eyes.
As we’ve come to expect from the Unilever series, it’s a spectacle. And it’s as much about the experience and interaction with the work as it is something to look at. It feels sort of wrong to be walking around on the seeds, as you crunch them underfoot. I wondered whether Weiwei intended this to add a sense of brutality to the work – in a way you have to do violence to the work as you experience it, which might point us to the violence of the Cultural Revolution.
I think there is a theme of censorship and oppression in Weiwei’s work. Hundreds of people were involved in creating these seeds, which were then exported to England. Without really realising it, a political statement was being created, seed by seed. While high-tech and media protests can be censored and restricted (we’ve all heard about Google’s difficult relationship with the Chinese government), these seeds represent a huge, high profile statement.
Another interesting aspect of Sunflower Seeds was the way people were interacting with it. One guy had taken his shoes off to wander round. Some studenty-types were sitting down making piles and throwing the seeds around. A baby was sitting on a pile of the seeds, and his dad was trying to spit out the ones he’d put in his mouth. It was like being at the beach, and the noise and number of people made it hard to really stop and think about what I was seeing.
I was annoyed at first, but then I started to think that actually this was what Weiwei intended – he wanted people to get up close to the work and interact with it. This isn’t a piece for simply looking at. Via Twitter and an online video ‘conversation’, Weiwei plans to interact with the public as they interact with his work. And this in itself gets back to some of the thinking behind the work. If the work is partly about censorship and oppression, the online elements of the work push it even further in reclaiming a place for discussion and criticism of China’s history and politics.
Get along if you can – before they’re all stolen…
UPDATE: It turns out people walking on the seeds has been making too much dust in the Turbine Hall. So the gallery has banned people from walking on it for health and safety reasons. Seems a shame… Read about the change here (and thanks to Kate Jones for pointing it out).