Sunflower Seeds, Tate ModernRhythm Circus magazine
When Tate Modern was opened in 2000 the scale and dimensions of the cavernous Turbine Hall space was awe inspiring. A huge statement of the importance art held within modern life as well as a challenge to future generations of artists to aspire to be able to be worthy of such magnitude. Then the Unilever series, an annual special commission to a single artist to respond to the massive space, began that year with Louis Bourgeois' towers of reflective mirrors and giant spiders which have since taken their spindly legs to other giant art spaces around the world, many of which have been proudly constructed following Tate's confident lead over a decade ago.
With that installation came some of the recurring themes which later Turbine Hall artists have followed - physical scale and interactivity with the public. Scale, by which the artist tries to dominate the hall's space, is a challenge taken up by Anish Kapoor with his giant tensile Marsyas and Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project in which he doubled the height of the space with a mirrored ceiling and enable the hall large enough to hold an enormous glowing sun. Interactivity, so popular of all cultural organisations and museums now who easily confuse it with 'inclusion' or 'learning', has been best employed by Carsten Höller when he constructed playful winding slides from the top galleries to the floor and last year's installation by Miroslaw Balka which consisted of a monolithic black cube into which the public were invited to enter into, consumed by the darkness and emptiness.
But with 'interactivity' comes risks. There is the risk that in order to position the art gallery visit as entertainment and fun then the intellectual and profound side of artistic discussion is lost. Höller's slides, while juxtaposing beautifully and looking splendid, had less depth than Madame Tussauds, and How It Is, Balka's black nothingness lost all chance of spirituality, void and minimalistic experience because of the never-ending flashes of camera phones and children blindly running around in the darkness.
The other risk is the very British love of health and safety which was first tested at Tate with Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth, a study of the historic fracture of racism and exclusion which underpins modernity. Her work consisted of long crack in the hall's floor, starting at the top of the ramp and spreading across the whole space, widening and deepening, challenging the reading of the architectural space. It was a spectacular response to the enormous space - to eat into the floor and actually increase the hall's volume - though it did provide a trip hazard for the most ignorant of the many millions of Tate's visitors. A space as large as the Turbine Hall with just one single piece of artwork in it, anyone who entered this space would only have done so to witness Shibboleth and still numerous people managed to completely miss it and fall into it or trip over it. Idiots they may be, but they also offered a stark warning to Tate about trying to mix large scale artworks and so many people.
So, in all honesty I wasn't surprised when I heard the evening before I planned to go and experience the new installation, Sunflower Seeds by leading conceptual Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, that the work had been closed to the public. The work consists of 110million porcelain sunflower seeds laid out like a massive Zen carpet covering the hall's floor. Visitors had been invited to walk over, lay down on and experience the tactility of the material until concerns over the porcelain dust given off forced an abrupt early end to the interactivity.
Though, the nature of conceptual art is that as much weight and importance is contained in the underlying rationale and artist's intent as in the aesthetic experience itself. In this instance Weiwei is bringing his ongoing political voice into Tate, opening discussions about the commercial partnership between dominant west and the manufacturing east, commenting upon oppression in his homeland, the challenge of comprehending the size of China and it's population, and the notion that a homogeneous mass is, on closer inspection, made up of millions of unique and crafted individual elements.
I don't think that any of the underlying ideas, any of the media coverage or resultant conversations, or that any of the essence of the work is lost for not being able to walk over and touch the seeds. In many ways, to view the installation without seeing children kicking them around, without seeing the millions of camera phones getting in the way of experiencing and without the idea of us middle class western gallery goers trampling all over the delicately made Chinese seeds may well make strengthen the artwork and make it more powerful to witness.
In a space to one side of the sunflower seeds is a looping film documenting the production process of the seeds in Jingdezhen, a town in China that used to make vases of the emperors of ancient China and then vast numbers of Mao badges in the more recent history. At the start of the process we witness miners digging up the clay used to make the seeds, the men working away in a dark and claustrophobic space, dust everywhere and not a single face mask in site. Metres away we, the pampered western gallery goer are instructed that the same dust, though far less of it, floating around the Turbine Hall is a risk. These two polar extremes - the over protectiveness with fear of litigation opposite a lack of human rights and safe working conditions, illustrated by the film and fences surrounding the artwork, introduce another relationship between the two nations and cultures within the work.
How welcome to see a commission such as this, and a space such as this, used for a sincere political voice and in such a visually stimulating way. As well as providing employment for many Chinese porcelain workers, provoking debate about the Chinese political system and discussing the east-west relationship perhaps Weiwei's work will suggest to future Turbine Hall commissions that a subtle and profound aesthetic response to the awkwardly huge Turbine Hall does not need to be massive and pointless and to Tate that a stimulating art experience does not mean we have to be invited to get involved in any other way than the visually experiential and cerebral.