Ai Weiwei at Tate


But to return to the principal subject of this blog, namely contemporary art in China.  However, in keeping with the recent theme of government suppression of dissent, I will mention the most recent exhibition of dissident artist Ai Weiwei now on display at Tate in London.  The exhibition is an installation of millions of porcelain “sunflower seeds,” each one hand crafted and strewn out on the floor for people to walk over, crush, and in the process make an odd kind of music.  Regrettably, music was not all that was being made in the process of walking through the installation.  It turns out that crushing large quantities of porcelain sunflower seeds under foot also produces dust of dangerous proportions. Thus the installation is now no longer “open” as the artist intended. It is now one which can only be view by visitors, losing entirely its interactive component.

In a brief if vigorously appreciative review of Ai’s current work  by Charles Darwent, there emerges the following comment:

On a political level, the seeds were a symbol of repression; on a human one, they offered a rare opportunity for kindness, the sharing of a tiny plenty. In Ai’s art – an art heartily disliked by the current government of the People’s Republic of China, whose police have censored his work and arrested and beaten Ai himself – these two opposing sunflowers resolve into one.

And so the work is read studiously as a political statement, one which involves both Mao (the “Sun” in a good deal of propaganda literature) and the broader issue of hunger in China.  No doubt Ai Weiwei had such implications in mind when he conceived of the work.  Indeed, little in Ai’s work or life can fall far from the political, as he is the son of one of modern China’s most famous (and, I might add, best) poets, Ai Qing, himself a man who was both one of the central architects of the shape of modern Chinese culture, and also the victim of excesses of government control of that “shape.”  Ai Weiwei, having watched his own father suffer, is no doubt always mindful of what he can and cannot do in China, and, apparently, always interested in exploring the precise dividing line between these two.

My perhaps predictable complaint about Darwent’s otherwise very well-written article is that this particular observation, while true in the sense that Ai has had of late severe run-ins with authorities, is highly misleading as a broader statement on the state of art in contemporary China.  The current exhibition, or anything generally speaking like it, could easily be displayed in China today.  A brief stroll through even a segment of the now immense 798 art district on the east side of Beijing is enough to convince the casual viewer that art of a wide range of styles, messages, political persuasions and so forth is open to the public, and by and large for free.  The message to those who for whatever reason are unable to jump on a plane and go and see for themselves is that China’s is a very vibrant and dynamic art scene, one which I would argue rivals that of just about any global city on the planet today (including London).


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