Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Last year, I found myself in Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, after friends urgently suggested I see the Ai Weiwei exhibit. Turbine Hall is a gigantic space and features some of the most monumental and gorgeous works ever created. I have seen thousands of boxes stacked up by Rachel Whiteread, Miroslaw Balka's huge metal box of darkness, and seventy amateur dancers run back and forth for a Michael Clark piece. The capacity of the space is perfect for voluminous, powerful works that allow viewers to access art in a participatory way. When I entered the space to find 100 million hand-made porcelain sunflower seeds, I was speechless. The corners of the room were completely sealed off and viewers were only allowed to walk around the perimeter of the room. This wasn't the original intention of the piece, but the tranquility and the vastness was overwhelming.
This piece, simply titled, Sunflower Seeds, was intended for viewers to walk on. Despite the direct physical interaction with the piece, viewers are not supposed to take any of the seeds- just to experience the sensation of being surrounded by these little porcelain creations. It was only realized later that the porcelain dust being kicked up in the air was a health and safety hazard, so the seeds were raked up into a neat square on the floor and cordoned off to viewers. This really transformed the intentionality of the piece, but it did not take away from the absolute beauty.
This installation is accompanied by a short documentary about the making of the piece. Footage includes interviews with Ai Weiwei, the people from the city of Jingdezhen, and production of the work. Jindezhen is famous throughout Chinese history for the production of porcelain objects, but has since hit hard times financially. The project was a way for the artist to help revive the economy of the community to some degree. The film explains this all very nicely. I actually found it very moving.
I had heard of Ai Weiwei before seeing this piece, but because I had never seen his work in person, I was not immediately impacted in a personal way. When I experienced Sunflower Seeds I was really touched. I was struck by a very strong, emotional connection I seldom receive from art. I believe art has the possibility to inspire and change people to a certain extent, but it is often difficult for me to connect with work that is forward in it's political and social stance. Often times I find "political" artwork to sermonize or to function in a very exclusive and dry way that does not extend to the greater public. Ai's work definitely has an assertive political component, but I feel that he created a piece that functions very successfully on that axis. The humanistic aspect of this piece is what I identify with the most.
When I heard in the early morning of April 3rd, about Ai being detained at the airport by Chinese police, I felt incredibly upset. I have distant relatives who live in China and I have visited many different regions of the country several times in the past. The modern history of China is convoluted. It is hard for me to briefly explain my personal relationship with the land, people, and heritage. There is so much richness and magnificence, but a simultaneous grotesque quality to the way in which the government functions and some of the popular values shared. Ai has definitely been publicly critical of his homeland and I am not surprised that he once again had a run in with local officials, however China must also see him as being an asset to the country.
It is clear through a lot of Ai's pieces and the basis for his work, that Chinese heritage is very important to him. It's from this perspective for which his work is able to exist. He may not be complimentary about the politics of China, but he should still be seen as an ambassador of the culture and the land. He could easily have picked up and left his homeland for a democratic society, where he can more freely speak his mind and make his work without fearing censorship or harassment, but he hasn't. I understand that he was planning to divide his time between a studio-in-progress in Berlin and his home in Beijing, but there seemed to be very little objective to remove himself permanently from China. He values the Chinese people and Chinese culture. He is one of the most celebrated Chinese figures in the art world, so China really should just give him a break. I can understand the government's fear of an uprising, however they cannot pretend that change will not come one day. As Fred Hampton has once said, "You can jail a revolutionary, but you can't jail a revolution."
China has a history of being a very controlling and violent regime, but I doubt serious harm will be inflicted upon Ai Weiwei in detention. There are too many eyes on China at this point and I'm sure he's a "cash cow" of sorts for many influential art affiliates in China. I do not see the spirit of Ai to be one that will succumb to authority. I just hope that he will be released quickly to a body of people, stronger and greater in number and spirit.
Tate Modern 12 October 2010 – 2 May 2011
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