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.

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