CHINESE CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM SHOWS
We continue with part two of our interview with Juliet Bingham, who spoke with Art Radar guest writer Pippa Dennis on Ai Weiwei’s ongoing Tate installation, Sunflower Seeds (2010). In part two, Bingham reveals some of the historical significance of the piece and explains the Tate’s decision to prohibit people walking on the seeds.
Missed part one of this interview? Read it here.
Tate has set up a website dedicated to this Unilever series event. Click here to visit “Sunflower Seeds” online.
Were there any surprises in the pre-production process of Sunflower Seeds? Any particular challenges along the way?
This project is different from previous projects because often the work has been produced in the UK; … previous experiences have been much more hands-on and realised in a more condensed time frame. With Weiwei, he is using techniques he is very familiar with from previous projects. He has his own [pottery studio] and continually experiments with different types of ceramic form, from pillars to oil spills, watermelons to replica blue-and-white vases.
It was a case of making sure the seeds would be robust enough and that they could be produced on time because they had to be shipped here in containers, which took about 35 days. We had to work backwards to make sure the production could take place in enough time and that there would be enough people available to partner in the project. At one time there were 1,600 people involved.
Sunflowers Seeds projects meaning on so many different levels. Perhaps you could talk a little about what the work means for you?
[I was struck by] the personal narratives and histories of the sunflower seed itself, which Weiwei has often spoken of, within China and China’s history. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao was presented as the sun and the people as sunflowers turning towards him, so there is a revolutionary ideology somehow implicit in the use of that object. Weiwei has very strong memories of growing up in extreme poverty in northern China and, particularly in northern China, sunflower seeds were very prevalent; people would eat them at commune meetings during times of great uncertainty. He recalls that at every meeting his father would be pulled up to the front and reprimanded…, denounced as a ‘rightist’.
The sunflower seed is [also] a historical symbol, maybe unconsciously, because everybody shared them. Everyone would have big mounds of sunflowers in front of them at every event they went to – at weddings, even [just visiting] somebody’s house, they would be there – so they have that resonance of human compassion. It’s interesting that when Ai Weiwei went to New York he took lots of photographs, ‘New York Photographs‘, and there is an image of Duchamp’s profile which is photographed on a table with all of the husks of real sunflower seeds around it…. I think is quite a powerful image [that] resonates historically in terms of his work.
[Sunflower Seeds] is so evocative on so many different metaphorical levels. [It is] about the individual within the mass. Every single seed is different, it’s been handmade and hand-painted, and yet [each sits] amongst a hundred million [other] seeds. There is that sense of insignificance, we are just one of many many people, but also a sense that collectively you have a responsibility and have a voice. What happens when you gather the masses? What happens when you gather collectively?
The piece plays off all those tensions within Chinese history and I think there are also references to contemporary and historical economics, trade and society, and China’s ability to produce, producing often for the demands of the West and for our materialism and consumption. That raises questions about sustainability and society in the future. [Sunflower Seeds] is a springboard for many different thoughts.
Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei’s father, once said, “Poetry is hard work first and foremost. A poet must first be a craftsman before he can call himself an artist.” The level of craftsmanship is extremely high in Sunflower Seeds and is integral to the piece conceptually and in terms of production. Can we delve further into the craft element of his practice?
[Ai Weiwei makes a] very interesting point about craftsmanship itself. He is not producing the work himself; he works with skilled craftsmen and asks craftsmen to do something against their intuition or learning. In his furniture pieces, for example, he is rendering a very beautifully-crafted object, which has a lot of value attached to it, into something that is equally beautifully crafted but is essentially useless. You destroy the meaning, the function, of the work. He often talks about the ‘use’ value of things. With Sunflower Seeds the function is [also] removed [because] nothing can grow from them. That sort of paradox is quite prevalent in his work so he definitely plays on that idea – the value of inherited craft or authenticity, historical value.
How do you look at Ai Weiwei in relation to his “Chineseness”?
Weiwei certainly uses Chinese forms, references and materials but I don’t think you can pigeonhole him as a Chinese artist. Weiwei spent ten years living in New York so he’s very aware of references within China and outside of China, and I think it has always been very important to him to create some form of dialogue and exchange of ideas, which he has done by setting up things like CAAW (China Art Archives & Warehouse) and the anthology of books he produced in the 1990s which presented Western conceptual work as well as interesting avant-garde ideas that were emerging in China.
When planning Sunflower Seeds, did you consider the fact that people might take some of the seeds away with them?
Whenever you have a work with a participatory element you discuss all of the different ways that it might be engaged with. We were very clear that it was a piece to be appreciated but not to be taken away. Weiwei made a remark to a question posed on Twitter: ‘What are you going to do at the end of the show and what will happen about theft of the seeds?’ He responded, ‘Question two answers question one.’
He was implying that at the end there wouldn’t be anything left. But it was an off-the-cuff remark and he wasn’t in any way imagining that the seeds would be taken. He recognises that it is very tempting and many people would want to take them. We’ve certainly encouraged people not to take them because it’s an entire piece, an entire surface that is made up of millions of individual works.
What caused the closure of the experiential element of Sunflower Seeds only three days after it opened?
Obviously when any Turbine Hall piece opens we assess how the public are engaging with it. The intention for this piece was that people would be able to walk across the surface and touch the seeds. [We saw the work] almost like a Zen garden, an illusion; what you’re looking at isn’t really what you’re seeing and there is a moment of mental adjustment that you have to make because you think that they are real sunflower seeds. It’s a kind of discovery that, actually, each one has been hand-crafted: they are not mass-produced, they are not ready-mades, they are not found objects. Your ability to experience the work is enhanced by walking on the surface because you can hear the sound of seeds and feel the weight of them and notice that they are not real.
[Being able to walk on the seeds] was an important part of [the installation] but I think the reaction was just so enthusiastic. We had so many people attending and also engaging with the work in a way that was, perhaps, a little more than we had anticipated – there was a lot of throwing and stamping and rolling and digging – and as a result it raised dust levels. We have been advised that over a long period of time this could be harmful if you have a respiratory disorder, not only for the public but also for our staff. We monitored [the installation] over a two-day period and then made the decision to not allow people to have access to it.
So there has been some disappointment. [We made the decision] in conjunction with the artist. Weiwei’s primary concern was for people’s health; he agreed with the Tate that we should not allow access to it. … In some ways, when you look at it now and you see people engaging with the work, it is very thoughtful. It is much more contemplative and I still think it is a very powerful piece. It is ironic that people are prevented from doing something; there is another layer [to the work now] if you consider state control.
This exhibition has come at a time when the spotlight is very much on China: the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, Ai Weiwei was put under house arrest in Beijing and his Shanghai studio has been demolished, British Prime Minister David Cameron conducted a state visit to China. What sort of impact has this had on how Sunflower Seeds has been received or viewed?
It is totally unexpected. Nobody could have anticipated this sequence of events. In a sense, it has been worrying because in the past [Ai Weiwei] has come into contact with the authorities in China for his citizens’ investigations and when he went to Munich to install his solo show he was hospitalised, allegedly a result of police arrest. So I think the important outcome in terms of his aims and ambitions is to have a very open discussion about society and to have a platform to talk about his ideas.
The focus has been on China and David Cameron’s visit. Weiwei posted an open letter in the Guardian asking [the Prime Minister, David Cameron] to raise issues about human rights which for Weiwei are universal rights, not just Western values, that should be talked about more openly in China. For him, it has been a very important moment for his ideas and his views and obviously it raised more awareness of his work at Tate. I’m sure that more people will come and see the work and think about it on a number of different levels, and think about Weiwei’s practice. Strangely coincidental but very interesting and important, I think.
Guest writer Pippa Dennis is a Chinese art specialist based in London. She has an MA in Art History and spent ten years making documentaries for the BBC before living in Shanghai and working at Eastlink Gallery. She subsequently set up Asia Art Forum, an educational platform aimed at promoting the understanding of Asian contemporary art. Click here to read more articles by this contributor.
Editorial disclaimer – The opinions and views expressed by guest writers do not necessarily reflect those of Art Radar Asia.
- Ai Weiwei transparent communicator: Interview Tate’s Juliet Bingham – Part I – February 2011 – Read part two? Now read part one
- Ai Weiwei’s Shanghai studio demolition: top stories, photos, video – January 2011 – we collect and link to what the media were saying
- Internet best gift to China says artist and social activist Ai Weiwei – November 2010 – the artist follows up on his Shanghai studio demolition
- Ai Weiwei’s studio party cancelled? Art Radar was there – November 2010 – our original on-the-ground report from this defiant party
- Picasso of China or voice of dissent: Who is Ai Wei Wei? Profile – September 2009 – a well-rounded overview of the artist and his career to date