The current exhibition at Turbine Hall at Tate Modern takes you by surprise. It plays tricks on you. From a distance it is a carpet of grey, but as you get closer you begin to realise it is made up of millions of tiny beads. Closer inspection reveals that these are sunflower seeds, handmade in porcelain.
I have always enjoyed modern art that plays visual tricks, Dali and Esher et al, but the current installation in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern is no mere optical illusion. There is certainly more to Sunflower Seeds than meets the eye.
The scale of this installation is staggering, 100 million handmade unique pieces. Its scale is a clue to its symbolism. An undertaking of this scale could only be a product of China, and so it is, for this is the work of the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei.
Indeed this piece is to some extent a symbol of China, which goes beyond mass-production and the obvious visual pun of china from China. As Juliet Bingham, Curator of the exhibition puts it,
"Each piece is a part of the whole, a commentary on the relationship between the individual and the masses. The work continues to pose challenging questions: 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 society, the environment and the future?"But this installation also needs to be seen in the context of Ai Weiwei's other work. The artist explores the relationship past China and the new China and between China and the world [See Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-cola logo 1994 - below]. He has not be afraid of challenging those who govern. For example, his work, Snake Ceiling 2009, is composed of hundreds of black-and-white backpacks for elementary and junior high school students in memory of the children killed in the Sichuan earthquake.
For the artist, as for many Chinese, the sunflower seed is symbolic of the Chinese people - its potent significance echoing from Mao Tse-tung's rhetoric and propaganda, seeing himself as the sun and the nation of sunflowers turning their faces towards him.
I was surprised by this exhibition. Its meaning and purpose are not obvious, but the more I read about Ai Weiwei and the more I read about the exhibition, the more I came to appreciate this as a truly remarkable piece of modern art. Do take the time to visit it.
For further reading on Ai Weiwei
"The Artist as Activist" Tate Etc 20, Autumn 2010