by Adrian Searle, Mon. Oct. 11, 2010
At first sight Ai Weiwei's installation Sunflower Seeds presents us with an undifferentiated field of grey, filling the space between the bridge and the end wall of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. It is almost disappointing. The late Felix Gonzalez-Torres's piles of cellophane-wrapped sweets, which he showed in the 1980s, were prettier, and you were free to eat them (the American artist liked the idea that people could leave his shows with a nice taste lingering in their mouths). But the sweets were also metaphors for the Aids crisis, and much besides. Nothing in art is what it seems. And you can't eat a single one of Ai Weiwei's sunflower seeds, any more than you could Marcel Duchamp's marble sugar cubes. They'd break your teeth.
But you can trudge over them, walk or skip or dance on these seeds, all of them Made in China. Or scoop up handfuls and let them run through your fingers, in the knowledge that someone, an old lady or a small-town teenager in Jingdezhen, has delicately picked up each one and anointed it with a small brush. Every seed is painted by hand. The town that once made porcelain for the imperial court has been saved from bankruptcy by making sunflower seeds. It is absurd.
I love this work. It is a world in a hundred million objects. It is also a singular statement, in a familiar, minimal form – like Wolfgang Laib's floor-bound rectangles of yellow pollen, Richard Long's stones or Antony Gormley's fields of thousands of little humanoids. Sunflower Seeds, however, is better. It is audacious, subtle, unexpected but inevitable. It is a work of great simplicity and complexity. Sunflower Seeds refers to everyday life, to hunger (the seeds were a reliable staple during the Cultural Revolution), to collective work, and to an enduring Chinese industry. But it is also symbolic. It joins several previous Turbine Hall commissions – most recently Doris Salcedo's 2008 Shibboleth and Miroslaw Balka's How It Is – in a dialogue about the social and cultural place of art.
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