At first sight Ai Weiwei’s installation Sunflower Seeds presents us with an undifferentiated field of gray, filling the space between the bridge and the end wall of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. It is almost disappointing. The late Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ piles of cellophane-wrapped sweets, which he showed in the 1980s, were prettier, and you were free to eat them. You can’t eat a single one of Ai’s sunflower seeds. They’d break your teeth.
But you can trudge over them, walk or skip or dance on these seeds, all of them Made in China, in the knowledge that someone, an old lady or a small-town teenager in Jingdezhen, has delicately picked up each one and anointed it with a small brush. Every seed is painted by hand.
I love this work. It is a world in a hundred million objects. It is also a singular statement, in a familiar, minimal form — like Wolfgang Laib’s floor-bound rectangles of yellow pollen, Richard Long’s stones or Antony Gormley’s fields of thousands of little humanoids. Sunflower Seeds, however, is better. It is audacious, subtle, unexpected but inevitable. It is a work of great simplicity and complexity. Sunflower Seeds refers to everyday life, to hunger — the seeds were a reliable staple during the Cultural Revolution — to collective work, and to an enduring Chinese industry. But it is also symbolic. It joins several previous Turbine Hall commissions in a dialogue about the social and cultural place of art.
The meanings are as multiple and singular as its form. Ai has taken the lesson of Duchamp’s readymade and Warhol’s multiples and turned them into a lesson in Chinese history and Western modernization, and the price individuals in China pay for that. Every unique seed is homogenized into a sifting mass.
Ai is the best artist to have appeared since the Cultural Revolution in China. His field of sunflower seeds will no doubt have a huge audience at Tate Modern, one that might see it as no more than an entertaining spectacle and treat it like a day at the beach. Yet Sunflower Seeds is contingent, oddly moving and beautiful. It is like quicksand.
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