Friday, 15 October 2010

Ai Weiwei

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. © Magnus Andersson

Last Monday I was down at Tate Modern to witness the opening of the new installation in the Turbine Hall by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. For those that don't know, the Tate Modern is housed in an old disused power station (designed by the same man who gave us the classic red telephone box as well as Battersea Power Station). The size of the building is enormous and the Turbine Hall is one huge empty space; a real test for any artist to inhabit with a single piece of work.

The turbine hall in Tate Modern. © Magnus Andersson

For me, the most impressive works to date have been Anish Kapoor's 'Marsyas' and Olafur Eliasson's 'Weather Project' (below), who both really made the vast space their own. This time was different the doors were opened for us, I couldn't see anything at all. As we drew closer I noticed that there seemed to be a beach of some kind at the far end of the hall. My first impression was one of disappointment.

The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson in 2003. © Magnus Andersson

It turned out that my fears were unwarranted. Although smaller in size than some of the previous Unilever Series, it is certainly one of the most thought provoking. What first appears as a beach of pebbles soon becomes a vast ocean of slightly over sized sunflower seeds.

There is over 100 million of these hand crafted seeds. © Magnus Andersson

Once you are in it, it then becomes clear that they are not 'real'. There's over 100 million of them. In fact they are individually crafted and hand painted by skilled artisans, and it took a small army (1600 of them) over two years to create.

A TV reporter lies in the porcelain seeds. He asked his crew: "Why am I doing this?" © Magnus Andersson

The sheer work that has gone into creating this is breathtaking and Ai Weiwei makes several comments on both mass production (Made in China) vs. individuality and Chinese history during the Cultural Revolution; something which he experienced first hand.

The foot steps. © Magnus Andersson

Ai Weiwei himself is one of the most significant living artists on the planet today. You might not have heard his name but you have most certainly seen his work before. He was involved in the design in some of the Chinese Olympics venues. But he is also an activist risking his life. He believes in mass communication and he also dares to go against the Chinese regime, (requiring brain surgery for his efforts). He's a massive Twitterer, blogger and his Wiki page is fascinating. If you are in London anytime before May 2, 2011, go see it! Just make sure that you read the artists' notes before you dive in.

Ai Weiwei about to be interviewed on live TV. © Magnus Andersson

He's also a cool dude. During the photo call he took the time (and I mean a looong time) to stop, pick out his
compact digital camera, take a few pictures of us while we were shooting him; then he tweeted it. Nice.

Close up of the porcelain sunflower seeds. © Magnus Andersson

Bad news came through yesterday though, with reports that the constant walking on the seeds created a fine cloud of porcelain dust, which in no way is healthy for you, so for now the exhibition is one to be looked at as opposed to immersing yourself in. What a shame. Picking up a handful of the seeds and inspecting them up close was a massive point in this work of art. Hopefully they will sort it out.

Ai Weiwei throws his creation up in the air. © Magnus Andersson

I may or may not have kept one of the little porcelain sunflower seeds for posterity. ;)

Pps. Exhibition gets a 5-star review in The Guardian.

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