You might have heard about Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds, an installation in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London, England. Initially, visitors were encouraged to interact with the artwork but due to health and safety concerns the museum decided to close access to the public. Now, the work can be viewed from a bridge that goes across the gallery or from behind a rope. This is the third show at the Tate that experienced safety issues. The first occured in 2006 when visitors were injured in Carsten Höller’s exhibit of Test Site. This was an installation of a series of slides-the longest one being 58 meters (approximately 190.2 feet) long. The second issue arose during Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth when three visitors fell into the crack on the floor.
In a statement, the Museum said that a “greater than expected level” of ceramic dust was released by the visitor interaction with the piece, continuing by saying that the Tate Modern had “been advised that this dust could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time.” As a consequence and after consulting with Ai Weiwei, the Tate, “decided not to allow visitors to walk across the sculpture’’ any longer.
Sunflower Seeds is composed of 100’s of millions of ceramic seeds, which are all hand-crafted and life-size. This artwork goes beyond simply interacting with an installation since sunflower seeds are part of daily life in China and are readily available as a snack food. At the same time, they were also a dependable source of nourishment to fend off hunger during the Cultural Revolution. During the Revolution, Chairman Mao Zedong was portrayed as the Sun in posters and the people of China as sunflowers with their faces turned toward him.
These ceramic seeds themselves are the collective product of the village of Jingdezhen in China. Considering the artist’s outspoken criticism of the current government it is not surprising that his work bears all these connotations. For more images of the installation check out this slide show and this article by Adrian Searle on the guardian’s website.
Juliet Bingham, the curator of the exhibition, explains the piece:
Ai Weiwei’s Unilever Series commission, Sunflower Seeds, is a beautiful, poignant and thought-provoking sculpture. The thinking behind the work lies in far more than just the idea of walking on it. The precious nature of the material, the effort of production and the narrative and personal content create a powerful commentary on the human condition. Sunflower Seeds is a vast sculpture that visitors can contemplate at close range … or look upon from the Turbine Hall bridge above. Each piece is a part of the whole, a commentary on the relationship between the individual and the masses. 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?
Similar to The Unilever Series at the Tate Modern, the New Britain Museum of American Art also has a space, the LeWitt staircase, reserved for changing installations. Since the opening of the new building there have been two installations. The first one by Stephen Hendee entitled The Eye and currently The Gravity of Color, New Britain by Lisa Hoke. For more information on these works check out the following blog posts here and here.
What do you think of the Tate’s decision to close the piece to visitor interation? How does it change the installation? How does it remain unchanged? Can you think of any other artists that create work similar to Ai Weiwei? Are they as politically and socially charged as Weiwei’s? What do you think of the NBMAA’s series of installation? What would you like to see next?