Illustration of David Elliott by Saiman Chow.

The Seeds of Time or the Sands of the Desert?

China UK Germany

Over the past couple of years it has been hard to avoid the work of Ai Weiwei. Conscientiously ubiquitous, in 2008 it popped up in Beijing in the design for the famous “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium, only to be disowned by the artist as a symptom of the  “pretend smile of bad taste.”

Or in 2007, at documenta 12, it hit the ground when Template, a monumental structure of doors and window frames, victims of the current Chinese building boom, collapsed in a freak storm. There is a natural irony here that we can all appreciate, yet the means by which it is achieved—the strategy of reversal, a thing being the opposite of what it seems—reminds me of the military writings of Sun Tzu that have influenced so many generals.

As architect, designer, artist, writer, blogger and activist, Ai has marshaled his works as if he were a general. After the Cultural Revolution, he exhibited with the Stars group, a spearhead of the growing democracy movement. Since then he has always pitched himself against the establishment’s power. From 1981 to 1993 he lived in the United States, then moved back to China, where in a series of destructive and transformative actions, symbolic reversals of Confucian respect for harmony and age, he reduced ancient pottery to scattered shards or jars of conceptual dust. In 2000 he co-curated the “Fuck Off” exhibition, bringing together installations and actions that seemed to be rooted in such a sadistic, disillusioned cynicism that, for many, they tested the limits of what art could be. Again the strategy of opposites kicked in: what seemed to be violence actually could be, perhaps, intense emotion, even sentiment.

At documenta, though, Template was dwarfed by Fairytale, in which Ai invited 1,001 laid-off Chinese workers, street vendors, students, performers, farmers and others to travel to sleepy little Kassel—a town not renowned for its appreciation of ethnic diversity—to see the show. The impact of the work depended literally on where you were coming from. Was this sudden influx of people a dream or a nightmare, a vehicle of happiness for those who traveled, or a Trojan Horse in the heart of Europe?

Ai is well aware of such ambivalence, and he weaves it into the fabric of his work. Recently, he has openly criticized the Chinese government for its suppression of the scale and the causes of the carnage of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Last year he spread 9,000 children’s rucksacks across the façade of Munich’s Nazi-built Haus der Kunst for Remembering, a work that told the pathetic words, in Chinese characters, of a bereaved mother: “She lived happily for seven years in this world.” 

In October alone three exhibitions of Ai’s work were on show in Europe. At Alexander Ochs Gallery in Berlin, plangent strings backed Barely Something (2009), a video that scrolls names of the 4,851 schoolchildren who died in Sichuan, crushed under the corruption that had built the substandard architecture that killed them. Switch to Vienna, where Christine König Galerie had Ai’s activist documentary works, including photographs of his fateful trip to Chengdu in August 2009 to attend the trial of his friend Tan Zuoren, who had also spoken out against the cover-up of corruption. One picture shows the artist in an elevator just after police had broken into his hotel room and beat him up. Both Vienna and Berlin exhibit versions of the artist’s brain scan made in a German hospital indicating cerebral hemorrhage—a result, it is implied, of the brutality in Chengdu.

Cut to London, Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and Sunflower Seeds, a large sculptural installation of over 100 million individually handmade objects. During the Cultural Revolution sunflowers denoted the Mao-adoring masses, but Ai also remembers that sharing the seeds provided a rare space of friendship and pleasure at that time. This vast installation of Chinese-produced, hand-painted porcelain simulacra was intended to be “a sensory and immersive installation that visitors can touch, walk on and listen to as the seeds shift beneath their feet.” 

Yet beyond this touchy-feely, urban-beach-bar dream, other impressions quickly make themselves felt. The mechanical impersonality of the statistics alone leads to contemplation of the place of the individual within the mass—and perhaps also of where power actually lies. As with Fairytale, there was obviously a massive transfer of funds from Europe to China to produce the work, and I felt relieved that the workers in this age-old but rapidly shrinking cottage industry were gaining brief respite from economic forces that are obviously far beyond their control.

In this context, Ai is quoted as saying  “your own acts and behavior tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.” An October 22 update on the Tate website embellishes on this: “Although porcelain is very robust . . . the interaction of visitors with the sculpture can cause dust that could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time.”

Playtime is over. The pabulum of “experience” has been forcibly replaced by a more remorseless impression: art can be dangerous. The barriers and guards of the museum separate the public from this work for their own good. But what do we really see in the Turbine Hall now? Is this huge, static, glowering rectangle really sculpture in an extended field, a younger brother of American Minimal or Conceptual art? Or is it more about the mass of the units—replicas of seeds, or just dry husks? As ever in the art of Ai Weiwei, there’s good news and bad news. Perhaps the seeds can germinate to grow over our heads. Or, given their resemblance to desert sands, might they smother us?

Artistic director for the 17th Biennale of Sydney in 2010, British curator David Elliott was director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo from 2001 to 2006. He is currently curating “Bye Bye Kitty!!!” for the Japan Society, New York, which will open in March 2011.