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Posted in Contemporary Art
May 28, 2018

The Politics Of Display – The Tate Modern And Ai WeiWei’s “Sunflower Seeds” (Marcelo de Melo)

Note: This essay was inspired by the author’s visit to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and its exhibition of Al WeiWei’s Sunflower Seeds as part of the Unilever Series.  It deals with questions raised during the author’s frustrating experience with this particular installation of the Unilever series commission.  It is published here 8 years after the exhibition itself to offer insight into larger issues concerning major sponsored exhibitions apart from the quality of the art itself.

Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” was not exactly what was advertised. Visitors were not allowed to walk on the sculpture and the main question was why this was the case. The concerns turned to what was denied and not truly experienced. The politics of display was central. The aspects of the work presented point out to its social, phenomenological and political dimensions.

It was October 2010 when I came across an ad for the latest Unilever series commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. It announced the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.  As in previous editions of the series, I got excited about the possibility of interacting with the work and having some sort of “transcendental” experience.

The installation seemed promising as we were meant to believe that we could walk on it and possibly touch the seeds. Driven by the possibilities on offer, on the 14th I rushed to Tate Modern.

At first sight it startled me. I tried to figure out what in fact that work was. It could not be just millions of sunflower seeds spread out on the floor – but that was it! Disappointment sat in when I was stopped by a steward and was not allowed to get any closer, after all the promising advertisement. That striking grey image and the inaccessibility of the work hit me. I was confused. Why was no one allowed to interact with it?

Was Ai Weiwei solely interested in depicting a political image of globalization in a static way without the visitor’s interaction? It seemed terribly one sided for such a controversial and engaging artist. What was his original intention? Was there a shift on the display mechanism of the work posterior to its production? The media was advertising otherwise. I set about to understand it.

According to Juliet Bingham, the curator for Tate Modern,

‘The thinking behind the work lies in far more than just the idea of walking on it.’ She points out to the ‘precious nature of the material, the effort of production and the narrative and personal content [able to] create a powerful commentary on the human condition [and that] the work continues to pose challenging questions: What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future?’

However, all these questions are secondary to the question of the politics of display focusing on what the work denies in this particular set-up rather than what it allows. Why was the work blocked from public access and interaction? The work presented by Tate was not necessarily the work envisaged by the artist and advertised by the media, or was it? How can we understand the aspects of the work and relate to them?

The Social Aspect

Ai Weiwei’s ideas showcased by the BBC programme Imagine (2010, episode 1) and the video displayed at Tate Modern concerns greatly with the social aspect of the work. It seemed central for the work’s significance. Bingham states: ‘Ai is known for his social or performance‐based interventions.’ The documentaries take us through a journey of discovery and understanding. He chooses the Chinese city of Jingdezhen for the project – well renowned for porcelain making since the Ming dynasty, with its skillful specialists working in small‐scale workshops.

World economy and globalization have made porcelain manufacture almost redundant and many of these workers challenged financially in a place without alternatives for income. Ai Weiwei commissioned these workers to make the seeds for the project. Unlike a ‘readymade’ the seeds were slip-casted and individually painted – very much in keeping with the old traditional way of porcelain production which has a very fixed language. The artist coupled ideas of mass production and traditional craftsmanship. The young and the old alike were involved in the process and their engagement with it is presented in such a way to make us believe that they were having a “good time.” They were even allowed to work from home in many circumstances.

The whole production process seems to be a truly remarkable achievement. A work produced by people to engage with people – with the ability to connect complete separate portions of the world’s population. One repressed and unable to fully choose their way of life and the other highly privileged and spoilt for choice. The way of life of such disparate samples of the world’s population is such that in Jingdezhen, as explained by Ai Weiwei, they do not quite grasp the idea of why these seeds were made and that the idea of a ‘work of art’ is hard to sell in such places. In Imagine, (2010, episode 1), he adds that it will become some sort of myth for the area.

Ai Weiwei suggests that only art is able to connect to ‘ordinary feelings or common sense [sic]’ and when it does it becomes the most powerful. The relationship between the production of the work and the audience’s interaction is thus paramount. The obvious connection point is the actual possibility of walking on and touching the seeds, which were touched by the workers in China – as it is clear from the video on display at Tate. In Ai Weiwei’s words:

I think people will have the impression that they are real sunflower seeds because they are fake seeds, it takes them a while to adjust their minds. They would always say ‘is that possible?’ They then would pick up a few. Some would even want to put them in their mouth to try.

At the end of Imagine (2010, episode 1) when Ai Weiwei and Alan Yentob have a go at walking on the seeds, it is correct to say that the whole experience of the work is based on this walking action. Ai Weiwei says “It’s hard to walk. It’s like sand” and the presenter replies, “This is very much like a physical experience.” No doubt, this experience connects the visitors to the work itself but also transcends its physicality, connecting them to the hundreds of skilled artisans who actually produced the work seed by seed.

Scale and the Phenomenological Aspect

As Ai Weiwei’s installation is made up of around 100 million porcelain seeds, the scale of the work has to be considered. It seems as if the artist intended to trick the viewer in one way or another. Considering that scale in sculptural practices has shifted from object size to architectural scale going through a somatic relationship to the work – well exploited by minimalism – his installation extrapolates these tendencies.

On the one hand, he invites the visitors to an intimate relationship with the work; on the other hand, he confronts this engagement with the monumentality of it and its architectural setting. James Meyers, in No More Scale: the experience of the size in contemporary sculpture, says this allows for a ‘phenomenological interaction between the work and the spectator.’ Terry Perk, in Articulating Space: Audiences and the Spectacle, states:

[It] encourage[s] an awareness of the role an embodied perception can play in constructing [the] work’s significance […] the body, the art and the architecture exist in the same space and time and are dependent on each other for their meaning.

Having in mind that the work is supposed to be walked on and the seeds touched, how would people experience the work and produce meaning? – Or in this case at Tate Modern – how would they experience it when it is not fully accessible? Rosalyn Driscoll, in Aesthetic Touch/Haptic Art, describes how

Touch and art have something in common that renders them deeply compatible: both touch and art inform us about the world around us as well as the world within us. This capacity to provide access to both objective and subjective realities is central.

Knowing that sunflower seeds have a special significance for the artist, who remembers the sharing of seeds as a gesture of friendship during the Cultural Revolution, it is correct to say that by touching the seeds one can relate to personal experiences such as sharing food with friends; and, by sitting on this ‘sand-like’ surface, for instance, days on the beach can also be recalled.

For David Katz in The World of Touch, ‘without a doubt, one can call up, more or less clearly, a tactual image, usually accompanied by a visual image, of a surface touched in the past’ (62). It is clear that by not touching the work, the overall greyness of it would surely trick the mind in thinking that they are real seeds.

However, by touching them it would not have been the case because ‘colour can deceive, but texture cannot do so as easily’ (54). By touching it is possible to identify materials. There are unique properties to porcelain. Visually, it looks organic. However, once touched we are confronted with that reality, i.e. with the artificiality of the material.

All materials confront us in natural or artificial forms. It is not always easy to determine whether something is in a natural or artificial form, but, as a rule, it is possible to decide. […] The texture of the material reveals itself at every point in the artificial form [because] there are structures of tactual elements that are characteristic of the material’ (56, 58).

In considering that, the playfulness of the work is important to point out. Porcelain is porcelain even if disguised as seeds. Therefore, by touching Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds one might recall ‘porcelain’ even if shaped like seeds. It plays with perception generating new associations contributing to the production meaning.

This ability to engage is intrinsic to the work. However, Perk states that its inaccessibility reduces it to its Cartesian properties ‘in which objects can be understood simply in terms of their […] three-dimensional volume.’ This reduction in meaning is caused by the concerns raised by the health and safety assessment of the work which, in turn, plays a major part in generating its meaning.

Health and Safety Concerns

Concerns with health and safety seemed to have evolved from our interaction with nature and the numerous catastrophes which ultimately cause financial loss and damage to health and possible death. It is about the unexpected things that might happen and that no one can account for.

Jervis, in his chapter The Rape and Romance of Nature, suggests that the idea of ‘health and safety’ evolved with the idea of the modern itself and ‘man as the necessary controller and regulator of nature. […] As culture is embedded in nature, Modern culture survey[s] and control[s] nature [but] cannot escape it’ (141). Unable to escape the unexpected, forbidding access is the ultimate insurance policy.

The health and safety assessment of the Sunflower Seeds is made clear by a note on Tate Modern’s website:

Although porcelain is very robust, we have been advised that the interaction of visitors with the sculpture can cause dust which could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time. In consequence, Tate, in consultation with the artist, has decided not to allow members of the public to walk across the sculpture.

It begs the question of to what extent the artist was actually involved in that decision. It seems more like an imposition than an agreement. Ai Weiwei with his “agenda” of ‘without fear or favour’ and outspoken attitude against Chinese politics and its reduced freedom has found himself “forbidden” from fully displaying a work which draws inspiration from repression, engagement and social interaction.

In this sense, has the role of the artist been reduced to a mere supporting role to the spectacle of institutions turned tourist attractions? How can this trend be reversed? At least in Britain, there seems to be an overwhelming concern with health and safety issues – a ‘society of fear’ very much like the USA.

I would suggest that museums and galleries should reverse this trend by properly advising visitors on the risk and allowing them to make their choice of interacting with artworks or not. In many cases, institutions in the Netherlands seem to be doing that. A notice is displayed in front of the work alerting people to the nature of the risk and permitting them interaction with works deemed “unsafe” – a disclaimer, in other words. Once the viewer has accepted it, the gallery has no further responsibility.

Therefore, responsibility lies with the visitor. This was the case of the Beeld Hal Werk exhibition in Amsterdam in October 2010 where visitors were advised that by climbing up a high wooden tower they would be solely accepting the risks of such action. However, access was not denied.

The political aspect/politics of display

During the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government controlled the arts and artists. Freedom of speech was terribly reduced, and artists could only function as propaganda painters. The artists which were “uncooperative” were forced into labour camps or exiled. The language of the propaganda paintings was very fixed – much like the traditional language of Chinese porcelain.

In this rigid Maoist iconography, the sunflowers were thought to represent the members of the Communist Party and chairman Mao, the sun itself. The sunflowers were the metaphor for the obeying masses as sunflowers do not choose. During the Cultural Revolution, when Ai Weiwei’s father and the whole family were forced into exile, they mostly lived from sunflower seeds. From Imagine, it seems that the seminal idea for the installation can be traced back to this period (2010, episode 1).

Chinese repression is still ongoing, and Ai Weiwei is constantly under surveillance and has been arrested by the Chinese political police in many occasions and beaten up once. His internet blog has been deactivated and he is now required by the government to demolish his recently built studio. It is ironic that, due to the circumstances and the politics of display operated by Tate and the Health and Safety Executive, Ai Weiwei has been in many ways “silenced” and the work is unable to fulfil its full potential.

A parallel can be traced here between repressive Chinese politics and the politics of display of a country like Britain which holds high the ideal of freedom. The Turbine Hall with the Unilever series allow for a mental image to be created here. It arises from the superimposition of The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson on Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds: in a true communist fashion, the Sun represents Mao, an inflexible political power, and the seeds represent the people unable to exercise choice. Such is the irony of it all.

All Things Considered

The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds biggest weakness is its inability to deliver in sociability. The Turbine Hall failed to be a place of gathering like in The Weather Project where Meyers stated that ‘groups of friends [could] arrange their bodies in ornamental configurations, opening and closing their limbs to resemble snowflakes and stars’ (222).

It also failed in delivering a phenomenological engagement with the work through its display. Perk states that ‘the role of the viewer in the formation of [the] artwork’s meaning’ was denied. The work was separated from the viewer through the context of its placement, which is essentially a modernist tendency.

Furthermore, the health and safety imposition reduced the work to its Cartesian Sense: ‘it is a volume that takes up space but does not share it.’ Ultimately, the haptic experience is altogether denied. What remains to be seen is whether Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds will ever be able to fulfil its full potential if displayed elsewhere.

Marcelo de Melo (1972) is a Brazilian-British artist and researcher. He lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and works internationally. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD in Art Practice at the University for the Creative Arts, England. He has exhibited and published works in several countries. His interest in material and visual culture is eclectic, ranging from classical archaeology to contemporary art and digital aesthetics.

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