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‘Everything is art. Everything is politics. You can call it art or non-art, I don’t give a damn’
Ai Weiwei’s work and reputation have risen steadily from the mid-1990s to his status today not only as China’s Murakami but also, if you believe the critics, China’s Warhol. Fittingly, he is now the latest artist to exhibit at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. I use the word exhibit here but in reviews of previous exhibitors their task has been defined more in terms of filling the notoriously large space. Adhering to this, Ai’s work Sunflower Seeds (2010) consisted of over one-hundred million hand-painted porcelain seeds spread over the Turbine Hall floor. As the documentary videos playing near the work explained: the seeds were created by workers from the traditional porcelain making village of Jingdezhen in China over the course of two years.
As grandiose as this sounds, at first sight the installation was visually disappointing. From a distance the seeds appeared simply as grey pebbles on the floor, as if the space was a large driveway or a useless gravel pit. Walking through the installation was a relatively commonplace experience as well, apart from the fact that the shape of the seeds generated a different feeling under foot to that of regular gravel. In comparison to Olafur Eliasson’s transcendent Weather Project at the Turbine Hall in 2003, engaging with Sunflower Seeds emphatically grounded the viewer in the ordinary.
Over the course of his career, Ai has consistently promoted himself as taking a conceptual approach to his practice, praising Marcel Duchamp and the readymade as his primary precedent. In comparison to Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami, Ai’s particular brand of conceptualism typically occupies a kind of peasant, organic or pre-industrial form. In this regard, the oversized incandescent chandelier Boomerang (2006) exhibited in Australia at the 2008 Asia Pacific Triennial was an anomaly within the broader context of his practice, appearing as an embrace of superficial form over content. It and other earlier chandelier works are better thought of as ironic responses to curatorial fetishes and exoticised exhibition premises. As demonstrated by Sunflower Seeds, aesthetic surface for Ai is a tool for thought. Like many of the artists that Duchamp spawned, his works operate not as a quest for some sublime and transcendent beauty but as image-artefacts in dialogic forms of representation.
Approaching art as a tool for thought is, in many ways, a result of the fact that Chinese contemporary artists do not take having a voice for granted. Only a few days before the unveiling of Ai’s new work it was announced that the imprisoned Chinese writer and social commentator Liu Xiaobo had won the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a curious coincidence. For over two decades Liu had been criticising the suppression of free speech. He became one of the most informed and articulate critics of China’s suppression of human rights before being convicted for ‘inciting the subversion of state power’ and sentenced to 11 years jail in 2009. Ai would have been both encouraged by the Nobel Prize announcement and extremely anxious about it. After criticising the substandard construction of schools as a factor in the deaths of over 5000 children from the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, Ai was questioned and severely beaten by Chinese police officers, later requiring emergency surgery in Germany to reduce severe swelling in his brain. Over the last few years he and Liu have been outspoken about the lack of freedom for intellectuals in China, in what appears to be the Chinese government’s battle against the globally connected and self-published immediacy of the World Wide Web.
‘From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society’, Ai has stated, ‘Your own acts and behavior tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be’.2 This stance—the artist as a public intellectual who thinks and expresses through form and action—is admirable, particularly given the political circumstances of his home country. Ai’s father, the once renowned poet Ai Qing, criticised the Communist regime in the 1960s and became one of the campaign’s first victims. He and his family were subsequently banished from Beijing and sent to Xinjiang, a region in northwest China, and later further north to a military re-education camp on the edge of the Gobi Desert. After Ai Weiwei moved to New York in the 1980s to pursue an art career, the practices of Duchamp, Beuys and Warhol were seen as precedents for him and many other artists from non-Western traditions, giving them a language to express genuine socio-cultural concern in ways that hermetic aesthetics could not. Art and narrative, art and life, art and artefact, exhibition and performance are all conflated in such approaches, raising an awareness of the lack of a finite beginning or end to an artwork.
Back to the Turbine Hall; the individualism of each hand-painted seed and the likelihood that many people will take one home as a souvenir conjured up references to the internet’s spread of mental seeds—the medium that is quietly and not so quietly helping to change our perceptions of the world. In addition to this, Sunflower Seeds also functioned as the metaphorical seedbed to Eliasson’s earlier sun. Juxtaposed against another artist’s aesthetic-driven theatricality, Ai could then clarify his own, very different, concern for the dissemination of ideas, thoughts and moral attitudes to live by.
Whilst I do not usually find it very interesting to think about artworks in terms of how conceptual they are, Ai’s new addition to the Turbine Hall project was rare in that it genuinely operated less as a formal experience and more as an impetus for a range of everyday thoughts, instigated in a subtle and generous manner. The work also referred to a broad range of other artist’s practices—Duchamp, Robert Smithson, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Antony Gormley and Eliasson—yet it gave new meanings to their tropes without appearing quotation-centric. Primarily conceived of in reference to propaganda posters in which Chairman Mao was depicted as the sun in front of a mass of citizens shaped as sunflowers, Sunflower Seeds offered so much more than just this to think about and could be a defining moment for 21st century Chinese contemporary art.
1. Ai Weiwei interview, ‘An Artist’s Struggle for Justice in China’, The Independent, 27 February, 2010, p.31.
2. Ai Weiwei interviewed by Juliet Bingham and Marko Daniel, Tate Modern Resource, conducted 31 May, 2010 and 1 June, 2010, Beijing.