Ai Wei Wei, sunflower seeds, and the Tate Modern

Posted on
Dec 20, 2010

I am not an art critic.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m massively critical. Of like, everything. And I love visiting galleries and museums. But art critic? That sounds like nearly as douchey a profession as music critic. Perhaps more so, because, for the most part, music is supposed to be enjoyable. Art doesn’t necessarily have to achieve that same end. If you absolutely hate a piece of work, or simply don’t get it, it could very likely be that that was what the artist intended. And if they wanted you to hate it/be confused by it, doesn’t that mean it’s a success? How do you then criticize it?

“I don’t get it.”

“You’re not supposed to.”

“Whoa. I get it.”

“No, no, no. You don’t get it. That’s the whole point.”

“Right. I don’t get it.”


“Got it.”

See? THIS IS WHY ART CRITICISM IS A POINTLESS PROFESSION. In my life, I have more use for a typewriter repairman, or a dog therapist (note: I don’t have a dog or a typewriter. Do you see where I’m going with this?).  Instead, I wander around museums trying to appreciate what I can and politely dismissing what I can’t as “not really being my thing.” Usually, if I find a piece of work remarkable, it’s because of one of the following reasons:

  • It shows technical proficiency and a mastery of a medium – i.e., it was hard to make.
  • It was labor-intensive (this doesn’t necessarily mean that it was difficult to create, but it took a really loooooong time).
  • It’s innovative (especially when you consider the context of the piece. Mark Rothko may seem passe today, but he was the first person to do what he did).
  • It elicits a strong emotional response from me (good or bad).
  • Any combination of the above.

I know, I know – it’s absolutely terrible to distill my feelings about art to a couple of bullet points, but I’ve found that time and again, the things that really capture my attention fall into these categories. Which brings me to the most recent installation in the Tate Modern’s Unilever series.

It caught my attention. Honestly, I don’t know how it couldn’t have:

It’s nearly impossible to tell what it is from that angle, right? Let’s get closer in …

Still hard to tell, right? It’s like a funky carpet on the floor of the Tate.

The suspense is killing you, right? Don’t worry – this next one gives it away …

Yeah. Sunflower seeds. At least, that’s what it appears to be, right? The answer is more complicated than that, though. Every year, the Tate invites an artist to create an installation for their enormous Turbine Hall, as part of their Unilever Series. This year, the sunflower seed installation (simply titled Sunflower Seeds) was created by Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei.

But here’s the crazy part: the seeds are actually porcelain. There’s about 100 million of them.

Yeah. I KNOW. (By the way – that reaction you’re having now? That’s what I would call a strong emotional response).

Each seed has been individually sculpted and hand-painted. Ai contracted 1,600 artisans in the town of Jingdezhen to create them. His original vision had been to have visitors to the museum walk on top of, and interact with, the seeds. But the rubbing together of the tiny porcelain pieces created porcelain dust, which, if inhaled, can be dangerous. So on the 16th of October, four days after the exhibit opened, walking on and touching the pieces became prohibited.  I arrived eleven days later, and it took all my willpower not to jump into the field of seeds.

Must ... resist ... urge ... GAH!

It’s funny, because Ai has been censored before (he’s been placed under house arrest in China, his studio has been torn down, he’s been attacked by police, and his blog was taken down) but in this case, it was simply circumstantial. If you want to touch the seeds, you can go to the information center, where (under close scrutiny) you can hold a couple of them.

I was contemplating how I might steal them, but came up empty-handed in every respect.

Did I “get” the piece? I’m not entirely sure. But it met all my criteria: it took technical proficiency, it must have taken a long time, it was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and I had one hell of a reaction to it. I wanted more than anything to run into the field of seeds, fill my pockets up with them, and possibly pelt some passersby. I debated whether or not the lifetime ban from the Tate would have been worth it, and I almost think it might have been.

Like I said, I’m not an art critic. But I know what I like.

The exhibit runs until March. We might be back in London in February. And if we are, I might just visit Sunflower Seeds again. We’ll see if my self-restraint is as strong as it was.

But secretly? I kind of hope it’s not.

Leave a Comment

  • Blown. Away. I have negative impulse control, and I would certainly have been banned from the Tate. There is no part of me that wouldn’t have considered jumping in and playing with the seeds a “bad” idea. That’s why there are gas masks, right?

  • Lisa

    Okay, I admit I don’t “get it”. I would be more impressed if he did all 100 million of the seeds himself. If the statement was the interaction of people with the seeds, could real ones have been used?

  • Wow. I think strong emotional response might have been an understatement for me. Actually, my strong emotional response was basically your strong urge to run through them. So neat!

More from The Blog

On Instagram @theeverywhereist

  • Help! The book I'm writing about startup journeys and biases needs a title... By the end of tomorrow. If you have any suggestions, oh boy would I appreciate them. #randtookthis #workingonthebook
  • Slide viewer? Check. Slides? Check. Image of your mother when she was 26, pregnant with your brother, that you've never seen before? Check.
  • Whoa. Rand received this rather remarkable gift from someone at a conference and it's led to a lot of discussion in our house about the verisimilitude of it. Also, is it weird that people are constantly giving us likenesses of ourselves?
  • Little dude learning to skip rocks on a crystal clear Bavarian lake. Traveling with @wilreynolds & @norapreynolds is the best. #randtookthis #nofilter #bavariansunset #latergram
  • We visited an Abbey where monks brew beer. Somebody's photobombing us. And this was before the drinking. #randtookthis
  • Just visited my step-mother for the first time since my father died. She gave me a box of photos, many which I'd never seen, including this one of my grandfather on my parents' wedding day. This image of him, his face obscured by smoke, is fascinating to me. In my lifetime, I'd never seen him pick up a cigarette, ever.
  • Cheers! Not sure who was more excited to toast over dinner here in Bavaria. Both Rio And Wil look equally psyched.
  • This again. Off to Germany. Really nervous to see Dad's final resting place for the first time. But this guy has been super supportive. So grateful for him. #thisagain #randaldineselfie #selfiesonaplane
  • My husband's grandfather hugged me goodbye after we had breakfast today, and said, "Take care of my little boy." If you need me, I will be crying forever and ever and ever.
  • Geraldine lost her voice (from recording her AUDIO BOOK!) and so made this handy card to take around at the #Mozcon Local afterparty. #randtookthis

All Over The Place

Pre-order my book now and I promise I'll never ask you for anything again.

Pre-Order Now!