At an Oblique and Markedly Penumbral Remove:

A Critical Review of Ai Weiwei’s Installation “Sunflower Seeds” at Tate Modern Turbine Hall.

Ai Weiwei’s installation “Sunflower Seeds”—which is the latest in a series of site-specific artworks sponsored by Unilever and initiated in 2000 by Louise Bourgeois’ “I Do, I Undo and I Redo”— opened at Tate Modern in London this autumn to a mixture of critical acclaim (viz. Adrian Searle’s fauning review in The Guardian), satirical public derision (most notably the BBC’s Have I Got News for You where Ai Weiwei was referred to in somewhat scatological terms as “Ai Weewee”) and official censure (the hasty imposition of viewing restrictions on the installation by government officials on grounds of health and safety). “Sunflower Seeds” is an undeniably ambitious work, comprising as it does many millions of individually hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds carefully raked out across the floor of Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall in a form highly reminiscent of a dimly illuminated English east-coast shingle beach or, more exotically (depending on your cultural point of view), the unpunctuated gravel floor of a Californicated Zen Buddhist temple garden. Furthermore, it is a work that can be understood, as promotional materials published by Tate Modern indicate, to act as a politicized allegory pointing on the one hand towards Chinese Communist Party propaganda during the Cultural Revolution that sought to represent Mao Zedong as the sun and the Chinese people as a heliotropic mass of worshipping sunflowers, and on the other, to the everyday Chinese cultural practice of the shared eating of sunflower seeds—the latter being open to interpretation as a politically seditious act of unofficial social interaction.

The difficulty with “Sunflower Seeds,” however, is that despite the seemingly impeccable politicized credentials of its originator—who has established a significant international media profile in recent years as a political activist both within and outside the People’s Republic of China—there is little, if anything, that allows us to see the work in actively interventionist critical/political terms. While Tate Modern’s “official” reading of “Sunflower Seeds” is suggestive of the deconstructive intertextuality associated with critically interventionist forms of modernist and post-modernist art, in practice the work would appear to have no particular focus for critique other than its institutionally identified role as a symbolic signifier of what is, it has to be said, a somewhat belated and, therefore, critically ineffectual resistance to Maoist authoritarianism. Granted, it is possible to see this reference to Maoist authoritarianism as an allegorical resistance to present-day political authoritarianism within the PRC. But, if so, that resistance is not only too oblique in its referentiality but also at too much of a spatial remove in terms of its presentation to have any telling effect on actual political life in China. Indeed, one might go further in this regard by arguing that the resistance to Maoist authoritarianism that the work connotes can be understood to uphold—rather than to critically deconstruct—established forms of institutionalized critical/political discourse by playing safely across cultural boundaries to the persistent cold-war prejudices of a Western audience who remain largely ignorant of the specific conditions of present-day political struggle within mainland China. What is more, if one shifts one’s interpretative gaze away from the literary-allegorical towards the visual it becomes possible to view “Sunflower Seeds” not as an allegory of political resistance, but as a metaphor for the dusty grey urban spaces of China’s capital city, Beijing, and therefore, by extension (and somewhat paradoxically), as a metonymic confirmation of the suppressive climate of centralized and conspicuously unenlightened political power that, despite thirty years of opening up and reform, continues to pervade mainland Chinese society. To which one might add an additional observation that “Sunflower Seeds” is open to interpretation as a diabolical inversion of Eliasson’s earlier installation, “The Weather Project,” in the same space at Tate Modern, whose simulation of an intensely radiant indoor sun successfully engendered powerful feelings of ecstatic sublimity, contrasting strongly with the markedly penumbral qualities (both literally and metaphorically) of Ai Weiwei’s own work. Added to which  it is also possible to question the ethical/political positioning of “Sunflower Seeds” as a work whose millions of ceramic seeds were produced by numerous unsung women and men working in China’s ceramics industry whose collective labor market value is ultimately far less than the exchange value of Ai Weiwei’s artistic output on the international art market (which is arguably not a particularly socially responsible exploitation of surplus value for someone who promotes themselves as a “political” artist).

It could, of course, be argued that the media sensationalism surrounding the opening of “Sunflower Seeds” is the outcome of a laudable attempt on the part of Ai Weiwei to provoke politicized debate in the public sphere. Moreover, it could also be argued that the Tate Modern’s agreement to restrict public access to “Sunflower Seeds” shortly after its opening on the advice of health and safety officials, who concluded that direct audience interaction with the work was in danger of raising potentially life-threatening amounts of ceramic dust, is indicative of the capacity of such works to actively disrupt the smooth working of public institutions. Another, perhaps less charitable, interpretation is that “Sunflower Seeds” is an incompetent (and I use this term advisedly in its specific aesthetic-philosophical sense) work, whose technical and conceptual shortcomings significantly curtail any direct critical engagement with contemporary Chinese politics by inadvertently inviting a state of restrictive entanglement with the off-shore concerns of non-Chinese institutions and attendant forms of localized political correctness.

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