Review: Ai Weiwei, "Sunflower Seeds"

The Tate's Turbine Hall hit sprouts in Chelsea.

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  • Photograph: Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery New York

    Sunflower Seeds, Ai Weiwei

  • Photograph: Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery New York

    Sunflower Seeds, Ai Weiwei

  • Photograph: Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery New York

    Sunflower Seeds, Ai Weiwei

  • Photograph: Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery New York

    Sunflower Seeds, Ai Weiwei

  • Photograph: Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery New York

    Sunflower Seeds, Ai Weiwei

Photograph: Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery New York

Sunflower Seeds, Ai Weiwei

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Ai Weiwei was hardly an unknown quantity before his arrest by Chinese officials in April 2011. He was, after all, a fixture on the international art scene, one of the wave of Chinese artists who shot to prominence in the aughts with the support, more or less, of their own government. His status was such that during the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, he helped to design the bird's-nest structure of the Beijing National Stadium along with architects Herzog & de Meuron.

But his detention on unspecified charges, followed by house arrest and indictment for tax evasion—all stemming, apparently, from his activities as a regime critic exposing corruption and inveighing against suppression of speech—has transformed the 54-year-old artist into a symbol of protest on par with Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi. You'd probably have to go back to the Cold War, and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's clash with the Kremlin, to find an artist-dissident of similar stature.

Accordingly, it's become increasingly difficult to judge Ai Weiwei's work as art. Everything he does now has to be viewed, pretty much, through the prism of his moral courage—which is no small thing. When Ai's public sculpture Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads was dedicated this past summer across from the Plaza Hotel, Mayor Bloomberg used the occasion to address freedom of expression. Discussing whether the piece was, you know, good or not seemed indelicate, given the context.

Even so, my own feeling is that Ai's output suffers from the same weakness that has characterized much of the contemporary art coming out of China in the past decade: an overreliance on derivative Western tropes like installation, Conceptualism and Pop Art. To be fair, a lot of Western artists are saddled with the same problem, though their pieces haven't been promoted as an export product, which is arguably true of the Chinese. Ai's work is also afflicted with the symptoms of what you might call global art-star disease: a scale and level of fabrication that is designed to impress viewers rather than transport them. The Mary Boone Gallery's installation of the artist's signature work, Sunflower Seeds, brings these issues to the fore.

I didn't get a chance to see the piece during its debut at London's Tate Modern, where it carpeted the massive Turbine Hall, but I suspect that people who did might be mildly disappointed by what they'll find at Boone. It's a much smaller version for one thing, though it should be noted that after its London run, the original was divided into several iterations measured by weight: The Turbine Hall installation tipped the scales at 150 tons; this one is five. It's still a marvel, at least mathematically, considering the millions of facsimiles of the titular item cast in porcelain, then decorated by hand. Each is both a mass-produced multiple and an individual painting.

On YouTube, you can find a documentary on Sunflower Seeds in which the artist effectively takes over an entire town—Jingdezhen, a former Imperial center of porcelain production—for the many months it took to complete the work. Everything is done the traditional way: The video follows the process, from the mining of the clay used to make porcelain, to the ancient water-powered mill where the clay is ground into powder, to the workshops and even private homes where the porcelain is molded, fired and limned with black brushstrokes. According to the artist, this elaborate effort is part of the point—an encapsulated demonstration of the nearly unlimited manpower that built China, past and present. Moreover, the image of the sunflower seed resonates historically: During the Communist Revolution, it was associated with the Great Helmsman, Mao Tse-tung.

None of this information is immediately apparent when apprehending Sunflower Seeds. Following the minimalist formula to a tee, it silently takes up the center of the floor like a great gray rug in need of vacuuming. You stroll around it, under the ever-watchful vigilance of a guard. For a while in London, people could actually walk across the piece and even roll in it. They could scoop up handfuls of the faux sunflower seeds, which look amazingly like the real deal. The added level of engagement made the work into a destination. However, it turned out that the pigment used was high in lead, which, when combined with the ceramic dust being kicked up, created a toxic hazard. Visitors were banished to an upper-floor mezzanine for viewing. This same caution, of course, had never been extended to the Chinese who made the thing in the first place.

Here's where we get into the contradictions—never quite resolved—between Ai Weiwei the dissident and Ai Weiwei the art star. Solzhenitsyn had only his typewriter to express himself, but as the aforementioned film reveals, in creating Sunflower Seeds, Ai made himself the central player in a simulacrum of the very system he criticizes. The film portrays him as a benign presence, amiably chatting up laborers he evidently pays well—though presumably nothing like the $600,000 asking price here for an even smaller (weighing in the kilograms) edition of the work. In truth, he holds real power over them, and in this respect he isn't simply someone speaking out against injustice: He's offering himself as an alternative to the existing order. No wonder the authorities are freaked out by the guy.

All of which makes for high political drama, no doubt. But great art as opposed to the merely impressive variety? That remains subject to debate.

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