Millions of Sunflower Seeds Can Help Slay the Artist’s Dragon

12 Apr 2011

by Margie OrfordFemale of the Species. Cape Times, April 12 2011

The Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern in London echoes with the feet of the countless tourists who shuffle through, numbed by choice, bad coffee and the head-scratching effect of conceptual art. The space is cavernous, the roof is at cathedral height. The light that sifts through the opaque glass ceiling is viscous with dust.

It is an unsettling space that is filled, at the moment, with millions of ceramic sunflower seeds spread across the floor. This artwork by the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, intrigued and puzzled me when I went to look at it last week. You cannot touch the seeds, even though your impulse is childlike, tactile. I wanted to burrow my hands into the heap, to scatter them, to build them into drip castles. But this is art, so the tempting little kernels are corralled behind a tasteful wire barrier and patrolled by muscular gallery guards.

This huge display at first so apparently whimsical, so playful, so mad, is compelling both in its size and in its modesty. This immensity after all, is created by little grey and black almonds of baked clay I walked down the side of the exhibit to look at the seeds more closely.

They are seemingly identical, but each one has been individually crafted. When you stop and look closely at the individual lines, the barely discernible unevenness of shape, become apparent. The vastness of these heaped millions turn unexpectedly into one and another and then another recognisable individual. The desire to touch, to pick one up, to hold it in the palm of my hand is so strong that one of the guards turns and glowers at me. I put my hands back into my pockets.

And then a couple of days after I had been at the Tate, Ai Weiwei was arrested. Many other artists, not as well known, have been picked up, as have lawyers and writers. They have simply disappeared, picked off by the Chinese police who have cracked down on any form of dissent with increasing ferocity.

Others like the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, have been charged with vague and spurious charges and sentenced. What is so dangerous about words? About thought? About sunflower seeds?

I puzzled again, in the light of Ai Weiwei’s arrest, over the meaning of the extravagantly generous gesture of creating 100 million seeds. At the heart of this display of seeds, each different, each unique, each occupying its own modest almond-shaped space lies a generosity of spirit, an openness, a tolerance, an imagination that could hold together multiplicity within sameness. The energy that is inherent in creativity in the troublesome and combative argument that artists, writers, dissidents, insist on is a source of social strength. It is an inherently generative force.

Why does an artist, a writer, a dissenter elicit such a paranoid and vicious response in the Chinese state? Right at the heart of this is the right to freedom of expression; the right to speak your mind, create, engage with and limit the power of the state over the individual.

China is an enormous money-making machine. It is the economic engine upon which the governments of the rest of the world have pinned their last hopes for economic recovery. The feeble international response to the incarceration of another generation of writers, artists and thinkers in the enormous stretch of territories that make up China is a symptom of this malaise.

It is not easy to work out ways in which to take on China. Dragons are, after all, large and they breathe fire when provoked. In all the fables I read as a child, no dragon stopped wreaking havoc until it was either slayed or persuaded otherwise. Those humble little sunflower seeds – the many millions of them – seem to hold the beginnings of that persuasion. It will only be the collective action – that old-fashioned notion of political solidarity between individuals in different parts of the world – that will effect change. We all need to work on our own governments to ensure that enough pressure is put on the Chinese government to release Ai Weiwei and all the others.

I would like to see those sunflower seeds flower.

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