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Dust Mask Not Included: Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds

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Published 2 November 2010

How The Tate Turbine Hall Closure Created a Perfect Piece of Art

Kate MccGwire told me recently of her time as an artist in residence in China. Though she was hugely inspired by her travels, she remembered constantly ducking in the street to avoid hitting air-con units placed haphazardly above pavements. Hardly the tallest of women, she suggested that in the Peoples’ Republic health and safety wasn’t the priority it is in the United Kingdom, where we’re wrapped in red tape and cotton wool.

But saving sensitive skins isn’t without its frustrations. Perhaps if Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s superb Turbine Hall installation ‘Sunflower Seeds’ was housed in Beijing instead of London the public would be able to roam it as he intended – instead of watching lamely from behind safety barriers.

An already poignant symbol of globalisation was strangely intensified when access to the exhibit was barred by the Tate Modern due to pollution fears. The footfall of the masses on top of those hundreds of millions of seeds has resulted in ceramic dust that could, according to a Tate spokesperson, “be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time.”

Worse, it was the “enthusiastic interaction” of the general populous that caused the closedown. All that trudging, sandcastle making and sunbathing was too much chafing for the hand-painted ceramic seeds. It means that the press and the art insiders at the star-strafed opening party – plus a couple of thousand members of public – were the only people lucky enough to interact with/steal the art work as Weiwei envisaged. Unless, of course, creating a microcosm of earth’s transformation from ‘Eden’ to uninhabitable trashcan was part of the artist’s plan from the start.

Antony Gormley, Jay Jopling, Rachel Barrett, Anthony d’Offay, Julia Peyton-Jones, Fran Cottell, Marina Abramovich, Konrad Wyrebek, Timothy Taylor, Angela Westwater, Nick Foulkes, Alice Rawthorne, David Adjaye, David Meitus, Silvia Ziranek and Kenny Goss were among those crunching across the grey field with Sir Nicholas Serota at the opening party.

As they form an orderly queue in the cordoned off viewing area, those who’ve missed out on the halcyon days of one of the Tate’s strongest Turbine Hall exhibits probably won’t be consoled by the opportunity to touch a seed or two in a small bowl. Perhaps it’s time for a peoples’ revolution to demand the right to take our lungs in our own hands… or at least the chance to buy a Tate branded dust-mask at the gift shop before stepping out on Weiwei’s wasteland.

Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei is on display until 2nd May 2011 at the Tate Modern.

Many thanks to Matthew Miles for this guest review. Matthew’s personal blog can be found here. Credit for the photos above go to Konrad Wyrebek, whose blog can be found here.


  • http://londoniscool.com William K Wallace

    Another extra ordinary case of PC madness. I think it is just an excuse because too many were getting stolen. There would have been no seeds left by May…

  • Mark

    I saw the documentary about the artist and the idea behind the artwork and was very excited to go see it for myself, sit in it, run the sunflower seeds between my hands. I went and wished i didn’t. separated by a cordon, the whole point of the artwork was lost. Knowing the intention of the artist from seeing the documentary, I thought, well at least i might lean across and pick one little seed to touch it and see it close up. I did so and along came an angry security guard: ‘why can’t you people follow orders?’ he said, grabbed the clay seed off me and threw it back with the others. I was very close to jumping the very low cordon and diving into the ‘lethal’ carcinogenic pile just to fuck that officious arsehole off. But I didn’t. Far too middle-class for that.