Some weeks ago, I put my best shoes, nicest socks as I headed to the Tate Modern to “experience” the Ai Weiwei Installation in the Turbine Hall. My intention was to walk barefoot on the 100 millions seeds, to touch them and why not to lie down on them.
In the tate modern website, one can read:
“Sunflower Seeds is a sensory and immersive installation, which visitors can touch, walk on and listen to as the seeds shift beneath their feet. However, the tactile, engaging nature of this work also encourages us to consider highly pertinent questions about ourselves and our world. What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for the future? Ai Weiwei has said “From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society. Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.”
But due to the Health and Safety fears over the dust created from the public walking on the seeds, the exhibition is all now cordoned off and we can only experience the installation behind a security rope: one can’t even touch, see or approach the seeds (the rope is 3 meters far from the seeds). The only thing you can do is ask a member of staff to show you on one the seed.
Here is what you see:
Picture, Isabelle Busnel
And the only encounter you can have with the installation is touching and photographing only one of the 100 millions seeds…
Pictures, Isabelle Busnel
One can argue that on top of the supposed sensory level, there are many other layers in this installation: one relates to the symbolic meaning of sunflower seeds often associated with The Cultural revolution, another one invites us to reflect on mass production versus traditional craftsmanship (each seed has been moulded, hand painted and is unique) and the astonishing quantity of seeds forces us to think on how we engage with numbers and value.
But I can’t stop thinking that by removing the sensory and immersive part of this installation, the major part of the artist’s message disappears. Conceived to be participatory, this installation becomes conceptual and intellectual.
It is deeply regretful as participatory installations can be so powerful. I remember an Exhibition at the Tate Modern from the Brazilian Artist Cildo Meireles and particularly the last room of this retrospective called “Volatil”: visitors had to enter a room barefoot, the floor covered by a foot-deep layer of plush talcum powder. The room was dark and filled with the smell of gas, a hissing sound and a lit candle in the corner was the only source of light.
Cildo Meireles, Volatile 1980–94
Photo: Tate Photography
The sensation in-between toes and under the feet was amazing and there was a high sense of awareness with the environment. But being in the dark with the gas smell triggered fear and unease as well. ‘For me the art object must be, despite everything else, instantly seductive.’ states Cildo Meireles “My work aspires to a condition of density, great simplicity, directness, openness of language and interaction.” One can read on the Tate Modern website that his work inherited the legacy of Neo-concretism, a Brazilian movement of the late 1950s that rejected the extreme rationalism of geometric abstraction in favour of more sensorial, participatory works, which engages the body as well as the mind.
Some people read the piece as a memorial to those killed in gas chambers during the Second World War, though the artist has a more benign take, comparing the experience of walking across powder to floating through clouds. Either way, this installation had a very powerful sensory impact on me.
And that is exactly what I was expecting with Ai Weiwei’s installation : some lucky journalists had the chance to experience it on the private view. Here is what Richard Dorment writes for the Telegraph.co.uk : “It took 1,600 people two and a half years to manufacture the number the artist needed to make the piece you see at Tate Modern. Like so much else about China, on paper such figures are almost meaningless. Only by seeing it can you begin to grasp its immensity. Standing before it, we look out over an immeasurable, fathomless grey sea.
But the moment when you step on it, your relationship to what lies beneath your feet changes. Each crunching footstep merely displaces a thin layer at the top of the pile. Our weight leaves no impression on the millions and millions of seeds beneath our feet. What from afar had been far too immense for the imagination to grasp instantly becomes as worthless as gravel”.
In my opinion, participatory installations or artworks share something in common with contemporary craft: it engages the body as well as the mind. According to Richard Sennett in his book The Craftsman, he views the satisfactions of physical making as a necessary part of being human. And craft work becomes a way to keep ourselves rooted in material reality, providing a steadying balance in a world which overrates mental facility.
Ai Weiwei ‘s 100 millions seeds are hand crafted by skilled men and women and the message of the artwork was supposed to be transmitted physically to viewers thanks to the tactile, engaging nature of this work.
Too late…I should have gone there at the very first beginning of the exhibition...