Saturday, October 16, 2010

Health & safety closes art exhibit

Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds installation was closed off to the public this week, only two days after it opened to the public. Health and safety was cited as the reason for barring the public access to the Chinese artist's carpet of 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds. Officials for Tate Modern said that people's overenthusiastic interaction with the seeds had created clouds of dust which might pose a health hazard.

Hundreds of visitors expressed their disappointment at not being allowed access. Initially the Tate gallery appeared to suggest they were merely closing the exhibit for maintenance. However as the day wore on it later emerged that the 1000 sq metre bed of sunflower seeds would no longer be trodden under foot. On Tuesday, as the exhibit opened to the public, hundreds of visitors interacted with great exuberance. 

Some relaxed on the bed of Sunflower Seeds as though it were a beach, sifting the seeds like sand. Children ran through the thousands of seeds enjoying the crunching under their feet while others buried their friends under piles of the hand-crafted items.

In a statement, the Tate said, "Although porcelain is very robust, the enthusiastic interaction of visitors has resulted in a greater than expected level of dust in the Turbine Hall. Tate has been advised that this dust could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time. In consequence, Tate, in consultation with the artist, has decided not to allow visitors to walk across the sculpture."

The Tate had earlier been concerned that souvenir collectors might reduce the size of the exhibit and issued a stern warning after visitors on launch day said they were fighting the urge to take home a seed as a memento.

Ai Weiwei has suffered for his art and run into conflict with authorities in his home country. While he was exhibiting in Chengdu last August, his hotel door was kicked down by police who then beat him about the head. Ai's "installation" was a public list of more than 5000 schoolchildren killed by the 2008 earthquake. A month later, in Munich, he suffered a haemorrhage as a result of the blow.

His latest work may well have stirred controversy in China. Sunflower seeds were one of Chairman Mao's favourite snacks, the Chinese leader said to be responsible for the deaths of many Chinese and of bringing about the destructive Cultural Revolution. While individuals were stripped of personal freedom, propaganda images often depicted Chairman Mao as the sun and the mass of people as sunflowers turning towards him

Porcelain has traditionally been one China's most prized exports and 'Sunflower Seeds' invites us to look more closely at the 'Made in China' phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today, the Tate said. Ai Weiwei has said that he chose to reproduce sunflower seeds in porcelain because during the famine years under Mao they were one of the few reliable sources of food, comfort and social interaction. For him they symbolise the Chinese people. Seen through his eyes, the piece is a powerful political statement about the relationship between rulers and the ruled in China.

The irony is that it was not the politics of his art that stirred up controversy, but political correctness and health and safety. In fact health and safety would be of little concern in China. Meanwhile at the Tate there were many visitors who had travelled to London's South Bank specifically to indulge in the creation standing disappointingly at the edge of the vast sea of sunflower seeds. Small bowls of seeds were provided so visitors could still touch them, but they were clearly unimpressed.

There could be several solutions such as asking visitors to remove footwear and requesting them not to run. But enforcing such rules might prove more of a headache than simply cordoning off the installation [Guardian / Telegraph / BBC / CNN]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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