It was inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less unfortunate.
When Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds opened at Britain’s Tate Modern in October, art-lovers were treated to a unique gallery experience. Not only was the massive hall filled with millions of tiny, hand-made, porcelain sunflower seeds — unique in its own right — but you could walk across them, feeling and hearing the crunching below your feet. Ten days later, the museum realized the dust from the trampled seeds was going to lead to a fine dust that Tate Modern curator Juliet Bingham said on the museum’s website, “could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time.”
It was an unfortunate announcement, but one that didn’t come as a huge surprise.
Even more unfortunate, it wasn’t the last change the piece was to go through. In fact, now the original mission to “look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today,” has been tread upon in a way that makes the evolution of the piece even more interesting than the work itself.
I didn’t get the chance to see Sunflower Seeds when it first opened because the disadvantage of living in a place like London is I always have the chance to get there eventually. So long as I show up before the show closes, in this case May 12, I’ll get to see it. But this meant I missed the first incarnation of the artwork. Instead, the first time I saw it, in early November, a rope was set up along the part of the work closest the entrance and I could look out across the vast field of seeds. The only interaction available was to reach my hands to the ground and feel the seeds closest me.
I didn’t take any and put them in my pocket. But, because others did, which meant that when I made it back in mid-December things had changed again. This time the seeds had been pushed to the side, leaving a long aisle down the long-side of the piece where before the work had gone all the way to the back wall of the gallery. This was great because, like the original orientation, you could walk and see just how many uniform seeds made up the piece. Sadly though, the rope was at a more museumish distance from the work — about a foot beyond arms length — so it could be seen but not touched.
Suddenly the close look Weiwei created became a distanced gawking. A position most people who frequent the Tate Modern are used to. The uniformity of the seeds is highlighted and the minor differences fade from view. No longer is the exchange tangible. Instead we are left at a distance where we can see but cannot interact.
I wanted to run my fingers through each and every single one of those seeds. I wanted to rest my body on top of them as if to make a snow angel. And yes, I wanted to pocket one. But now I can’t do any of those things.
Sunflower Seeds is still beautiful, but instead of being a dialogue with its audience it has become just another installation.