05. Echo Hopkins On Ai Weiwei At Turbine Hall

As autumn descends on London, so does the entire art world, drawn in by Regent’s Park and the Frieze Art Fair. There was no exception this October when Ai WeiWei’s Sunflower Seeds opened in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Part of the Unilever Series, an annual show that fills the massive entrance hall of the one-time power station, Sunflower Seeds isn’t a piece that you are able to wrap your head around until you’ve seen it. A show that has everyone talking worldwide, the concept beckons viewers with its seemingly accessible subject matter. After all, who hasn’t held a sunflower seed in their hand before?

Ai WeiWei challenges the notion of first impressions. What you see is an endless landscape of identical sunflower seed husks poured into the back half of the Turbine Hall. This is an illusion: In actuality, each of these was individually produced in the ancient Chinese city of Jingdezhen, a place with a centuries-old reputation for its porcelain. Here arises the first issue that Ai WeiWei wishes to address. It’s difficult to comprehend the idea of 100 million tiny porcelain sunflower seeds being hand-produced one by one. When laid out, the sheer quantity is mind-boggling, as the mass of seeds merges to form one large grey carpet. It is overwhelming to try to appreciate how many individual items are actually there. Confronted with a seemingly interminable number of traditionally hand-crafted items, we begin to examine the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon that affects us daily but is too large to fully assimilate. There is uniqueness to each one of the millions of seeds because each was carefully hand-cast and hand-painted by a human being half way around the world.

As with most of his shows, the main thrust in Ai WeiWei’s work is political, and Sunflower Seeds proves no different. During Mao Zedong’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966-76), the political leader was often depicted in paintings as the sun, with the Chinese people being represented by sunflowers turning towards his ‘light.’ For Ai WeiWei the image of the sunflower carries the personal reminder of a more brutal time. This juxtaposition of a highly political association with a common street snack is the paradox that makes the political drive behind the show engaging. Witnessing an unfathomable quantity of tiny bespoke pieces, a formal aspect registers the incomprehensibility of a perplexing political moment.

Other Unilever Series commissions have provoked similar thoughtfulness in the viewer. Whether this be Miroslaw Balka’s gigantic black box that invited the spectator into a completely lightless hole, or the chasm created by Doris Salcedo, the shows in the space have consistently fueled conversation. When Sunflower Seeds first opened, you were able to interact physically with the piece, walking amongst and picking up the seeds as you wished. Unfortunately due to hazardous ceramic dust, this is no longer possible. Talk of removing the work for this reason created just as much of a stir throughout London as the opening itself, perpetuating a conversation about sunflower seeds; the common deemed extraordinary.

12 October – 2 May