Monday, 20 December 2010

Ai Weiwei: Jump the Barrier

12 October 2010 – 2 May 2011
Ai Weiwei's ceramic seeds (left) next to real sunflower seeds (right)

There is a tendency to review exhibitions before they really begin. Yes, one can get a glimpse of the artist/curator’s intentions but only time can unravel how comfortably it will sit with the pubic. Michael Landy’s bin, for example, constructed at South London Gallery earlier this year, never managed to fill up and that half-full image of it has stuck. Today we are about half-way through Ai Weiwei’s turbine hall exhibition and very few had sat down to discuss how the sequence of events may have significantly changed the work.

Michael Landy's empty bin at South London Gallery, 2010
When it opened, it was just another exhibition to fill the huge space that is the Turbine Hall.  Less than a week later, it was shut off to the public with a health & safety scare. I understand dust to be dangerous and the huge quantities of people who visit the Tate Modern daily would certainly make it so. However, where there was supposed to be open space, there has become a no access area. That’s the point at which we first visited the exhibition. Its strange how a thin piece of string can hold the masses back, we thought. My friend leant over and took a couple of seeds home.
A week later, the edges of the work had been swept about a metre further away from the string. Apparently no one was allowed to take one home.  But what does this have to do with the dangers of dust? Security guards stand by the artwork - you know you should be allowed to step over and touch the seeds but the thought of being publicly disciplined is holding you back. I find it hard to believe Ai Weiwei would not want visitors to keep one seed to remind them of his work. Whereas Unilever (the sponsor), I imagine, has other ideas. 
‘Ai Weiwei – without fear or favour’, reads the title of an Imagine programme exploring the artist’s work. The same should be true for us. I doubt this was the intention, but being closed off, the work now says something different but not less relevant. For anyone who has also dared to jump the barrier to the seeds, I have to say the feeling was one of incredible freedom. It takes some courage and backbone even though there are no actual repercussions, unlike for many people who disobey authority in China. It has some direct parallels to the political landscape in so many countries, where reasons are fabricated to direct people away from even contemplating certain options and lead them by the nose towards other ‘accepted’ ones. I am not saying the Tate had fabricated the dust story, but if it had, it would have made one of the most gutsy and controversial exhibitions of the year. As an experiment to see how many people dared to defy authority to do what they all knew the artist had intended.
Ai Weiwei’s work is deeply entangled with the oppressive regimes and how they can create boundaries for the mind. I think that the only way to enjoy his Turbine Hall installation is to challenge the stiff authority of our own factory-like art institution and to run across the seeds. The experience may awaken us to all the other rules we take for granted in our own society.

Watch a BBC Imagine Documentary on Ai Weiwei here until 28th Dec 2010.