I visited Ai Weiwei’s sculptural installation Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern just after they stopped the public walking through the field of seeds at the Turbine Hall. Like many others, I found myself feeling disappointed. The seeds looked beyond my reach (I had looked forward to walking on them, listening to their crunching sound), and pale compared to those in the pictures I had seen. A message in front of the installation explained that Tate had been advised that interaction with the installation (such as visitors walking on the seeds) could cause dust to be emitted which could be dangerous to health.
I stood in front of the pale mass of more than one hundred million seeds on the floor feeling lost, thinking that had they glazed the seeds, I would now be walking on them! At the same time, knowing something about clay, I could understand the concern. So there I was, standing perplexed and disapointed, being faced with a case of dust to dust, or rather, dust, clay, ceramic seed, dust, with a short interval in between.
Then my eye caught the video screens right next to the seeds, and my whole experience took another turn! A fab-fun-fantastic video tracing the creation of the seeds – from the mixing of the clay to the forming of the seeds, the painting and firing and selecting the best seeds – the stories of the craftspeople in it were engaging and the colors, the scenes both breathtaking and remarkably informative.
I loved the idea of the amount of co-operative work that went into producing the installation. A whole community – more than 1600 people of Jingdezhen, a Chinese city with 1700-year-old history of porcelain manufacturing: it is known as the Porcelain capital – was involved in creating something together (the porcelain seeds), something that gave them employment, as well as purpose and community spirit. If the sunflower seeds symbolize the people of China, as suggested, then these symbols have been lovingly created and treated with respect.
Standing there, in front of the video images, next to the seeds and the playing of the visitors’ videos, it occurred to me that the Tate installation consisted of the seeds and the video together. That they were inseparable. No, more than that. That the seeds, the video, the dust, the message about the danger from clay dust (after all, which potter/ceramic artist has not heard of this hazard?), even the interactive videos made by visitors to the Gallery addressing the artist Ai Weiwei, all were part of the same installation! After all, Ai Weiwei is an interactive performance artist, merging life and art. I still believe that this is the case. Even if unintended, unconscious, a chance happening, I think even retrospectively, the lot belongs together.
In an article “From Seeds to Dust” Ulara Nakagawa alluded to the dust possibly belonging to the installation. I consider the Seeds installation as offering the possibility of a total/comprehensive/whole art work, where the art object consists of multiple layers: tangible visible object(s), sound, video, text, interaction with the artist, and an ongoing archiving of the viewers’ experience and thinking in their communication with the artist. After all, the Tate tells us: “…what you see is not what you see, and what you see is not what it means.” Well done, Ai Weiwei!