New Emissary

From Seeds to Dust

100 million porcelain sunflower seeds that make up artist Ai Wei Wei’s latest work have been deemed a hazard.

A little more than a year ago, Ai Wei Wei—conceptual artist, photographer, architectural designer and outspoken activist—was recovering from brain surgery in a hospital in Munich after reportedly being brutalized and detained by Beijing police.

The good news is that he’s recovered and is back to work. But while Ai might have welcomed being back in the headlines for his provocative and popular new work at the Tate Modern museum in London, his exhibition featuring 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds has made news after being partly closed to the public.

The problem is that the interactive display, where visitors were at first allowed to walk on top of the seeds, pick them up by the handful and examine them up-close, has resulted in the release of dust from the individual ‘grains’ rubbing together. This dust could, according to the Tate, ‘be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time.’

The unfortunate upshot is that instead of being able to experience the unique sculpture on an intimate level, visitors are now limited to looking at it from behind a barrier. And they’re not happy. One report from the Turbine hall gallery space on Friday stated that there was a ‘faintly mutinous air,’ with one visitor suggesting to the press, ‘Maybe we should kick down the barriers.’ Perhaps a little radical, but the frustration is understandable. After all, as he noted: I can't see why it's so dangerous. What about all the cars chucking out carbon monoxide in the street? We make a decision when we come to see something whether it's dangerous or not.’

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It’s a shame that this new, politically charged and intriguing work—which received a glowing 5-star review early last week in The Guardian and was described by the newspaper as ‘a work of great simplicity and complexity’ that ‘refers to everyday life, to hunger (the seeds were a reliable staple during the Cultural Revolution), to collective work and to an enduring Chinese industry’—has ended up being displayed this way.

Some have noted a certain symbolism to the problem—the toxic dust a reminder of what those involved in heavy industry are too often subjected to, for example. It would be far-fetched to suggest that this was deliberate, but the discussion of the problem is still a reminder of the environmental hazards faced in the place where these delicate seeds were painted.

Sunflower Seeds - Ai Wei Wei