It is certainly a highlight of the year, when the world-renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei does Tate Modern's turbine hall. I loved his installations at Munich's Haus der Kunst and so I was quite exited what he would create for the huge turbine hall in London.
He had made more than 100,000,000 fake sunflower seeds and put them on the floor of the museum. You walk around in this mass of fake sunflower seeds: At first, you are impressed by the mass of the sunflower seeds; then, you realize they are not natural; they are all handmade of Chinese porcelain and individually hand painted.
During the first three days, it was possible to step on the installation, as intended by the artist. Children were playing with the fake seeds like sand on the beach. Then, Tate closed it because of unhealthy dust development. (I think, they feared, at the end of the show, there would not be enough seeds left.)
Sunflower seeds have long been artistic material for Mr. Weiwei. From his point of view, they have many references:
He says, 'In China, when we grew up, we had nothing... But for even the poorest people, the treat or treasure we'd have would be the sunflower seeds in everybody's pockets.'
On the other hand, there is an art historic reference: In all the Socialist realism style Mao propaganda paintings there were always sunflowers. Mao was often depicted as the sun and the people were the sunflowers surrounding him.
It seems like a great metaphor for today's China: The times are changing and the sunflower harvest has been brought in.
For his Documenta project, Ai Weiwei brought 1,001 Chinese visitors to the show in Kassel, Germany. This time, he commissioned 1,600 people from the city of Jingdezhen to produce some 100,000.000 porcelain seeds and brought them to London. Back in the times of the Chinese Empire, Jingdezhen had a reputation as a leading producer of Imperial porcelain.
Ai Weiwei says, 'It is a work about mass production and repeatedly accumulating the small effort of individuals to become a massive, useless piece of work.' To the workers in Jingdezehn it makes probably as much sense to produce 'useless' porcelain sunflower seeds, as it does to produce the latest BMWs.
I like about Ai Weiwei's works, that they are both: On one hand they are deeply rooted within the traditions of China's art and artisanship - on the other hand they follow the Western concept art principles established by Marcel Duchamp.
However, Mr. Weiwei is not only the most famous conceptual artist from China - he is also a civil rights activist. Unfortunately, his fame does not prevent Chinese officials to beat him up at night: This happened two years ago, during his investigations following the earthquake of Shengzien for his show in Munich's Haus der Kunst.
Even a few days before the opening of this show in London, Beijing police officers placed him under house arrest in order to prevent him from attending a party he organized in his Shanghai studio to draw attention against its pending destruction.
In combining all these approaches, he manages to create impressive works with high relevance for today's society. An absolute must-see!
Ai Weiwei: 'Sunflower Seeds' at Tate Modern in London, U.K.
through 2 May 2011