Interactions around Ai WeiWei’s Sunflower Seeds

As you can see from the photo, I finally managed to have a look at Ai Weiwei’s ‘Sunflower Seeds’ at the Tate Modern. I had watched the documentary accompanying the exhibit before, so I was looking forward to immersing myself in the mass of incredible hand-painted ceramic seeds. As I approached the exhibition, however, I was greeted by a forest of signs telling me not to approach the exhibit too closely. I instantly overheard many other visitors’ upset comments: ‘shame you can’t touch them!’ ‘shame you can’t walk on them!’ So, no walking-on, no touching. How come? After all, you could clearly see footprints on the exhibit:

I asked two of the friendly Tate assistants, and they replied that at the beginning of the exhibition, it was, indeed, possible to walk on and touch the seeds. However, there was some issue with the dust this kind of activity generated – and people started taking seeds with them. This is why the exhibit became fenced off.

Accompanying the exhibit was not only a film, which can be found here:

… but also an interactive multimedia booth where you could video-record your own messages or answer the artist’s questions:

Like the film, this part is also available with online. What excited me about this part of the exhibition was not only that it was interactive, but the feeling that the answers to the questions Ai Wei Wei asks would potentially yield very different kinds of answers depending on the time visitors had engaged with the exhibit and whether this was online or in person. A visitor who had been able to immerse herself more viscerally with the exhibit would probably give very different answers to one who had been prevented from it – particularly to the question ‘what does this work say about society’

Actually, this part of the exhibition makes me want to go there again and record a message. At the time I was there, I felt like I wanted to think about those questions for a longer time, so I just took a photo of them – incase they could not be found online. Thinking about it now, I maybe should have recorded my incoherent mess of thoughts which went something like: I feel like I want to be closer to the artwork – walk on it, touch it, lie down on it, hear the sound of it – but I am being prevented from it. What does that say about society? Is this another health and safety overkill or was the decision reasonable? Does this act negate the message of the artwork  or enforce it? Is it bad that people take seeds, overcome with the desire to physically take part of the artwork with them? Could that not be part of the artwork? Was the artwork meant to last in that state? What will happen with the seeds afterwards – will they be stored, given away or auctioned off? Should the role of the artist in this case be to respond to the changes around the artwork? Is the artist in a position to do so? The turbine hall space at Tate Modern usually provides a more immersive experience – it seems due to size alone which generates the feeling that one becomes more physically involved in the artwork – I was hoping the artwork was there so people can explore its scale. What does all this make me feel? There is not just one answer. I partly feel helpless like a particle in the mass of sunflower seeds, subjected to forces beyond my control, but I also feel amused by the situation – the interplay of human impulses – and I feel that I can actively take part in this interaction… looked on my an absurd quantity of miniature artworks blissfully oblivious to the wacky human-ness going on around them that is all about them – and all about us.

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One thought on “Interactions around Ai WeiWei’s Sunflower Seeds

  1. I saw this exhibit back in November, and was disappointed to find the seeds off limits. I couldn’t wait to walk on them, and even pop one or two into my pocket. Something about the prohibition felt “off,” as though the artist’s intention was being compromised by museum officials’ sense of the “worth” of these items.

    As soon as I found I could not touch the seeds I was sad. I thought: so what if people take them?! Things in museums are usually off limits, the property of richer and more powerful institutions than most of us. The opportunity to actually touch something, made by regular people, in a fancy museum seemed so special!

    I think your response is very thoughtful, and I hope you did go back to record a message for the artist.

    –adeola

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