Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Tate and 'War Horse'

Dear Blog,

Hi, it's me, Celine. Wednesday, our group visited the Tate Modern. In the evening, we saw "War Horse" at the New London Theatre.

Our experience of the Tate was predictably dominated by the Ai Wei Wei piece entitled Sunflower Seeds. It is a mutable installation piece commissioned by the Tate, and consists of one hundred million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds covering a large rectangular portion of the vast turbine hall. At first glance, the piece is vastly understated; the porcelain seeds could be gravel taken from a parking lot. When I was close enough to the installation to see the hand painted ink stripes on each porcelain seed, an eerie sense of loos crept over me. Suddenly the silence of the space resonated like the dry air of a tomb. The work seemed static, dead. Strangely prophetic and accusatory; I felt sad and unaccountably uncomfortable.

The most successful and fascinating aspect of this work was its site specificity; it is the abstracted portrait of a town and a people who have lost their livlihood. Sunflower Seeds carries with it traces of its 1,600 makers. In other ways, I found the limitations of this piece severely disappointing. In the following youtube video, the originally intended interaction between viewer and work is demonstrated, as waves of people walk on the seeds.

There was also a place to record questions we had for Ai Weiwei, that were then uploaded to the Tate website. I asked if Ai if he personally thought that the act of making was inherently political, particularly in a culture where things could be purchased so easily. This question was fueled by thinking about the Craftivist movement, which makes that very claim. I'm currently working on a paper about Craftivism; I am very skeptical of several aspects of this movement. The video I recorded at the Tate can be found here:

I found a correlation between his work and that of Lisa Norton, who, in a series of work entitled Systems for Habitable Spaces, commissions craftspeople in China to carve mass-produced objects.

While contemplating this work, I found myself thinking about Craftivism. Sunflower Seeds took an entire town two years to complete; a tour de force of energy and craftsmanship. And the intention of the artist was undoubtedly bound up in socially responsible considerations-- could this work be seen as an example of successful Craftivism?

Questions I'm still mulling over:
-What is the significance of the number of seeds?
-What is the political nature of the work?
-Do you believe that the act of making is inherently political?
-Could a relationship be drawn between your work and the British born 'slow movement'?
-How do you feel about the representation of Chinese citizens as sunflower seeds?
-Why did you want your audience to walk on the seeds? Why not choose another form of interaction that did not involve having the seeds on the floor?
-Why did you choose to emphasize the sunflower seeds' collective surface area rather than their weight or volume?
-Sunflower seeds can be seen as an ambiguous symbol- either emblamatic of potential growth or the shell of spent possibilities. What larger metaphoric meanings were you considering when using this Maoist symbol?
-Place vs. Displacement = your work seems very concerned with the particularities of place, using symbols materials and methods of making that are specific (and perhaps unique) to the community in which they were made. What do you want this work to gain by its displacement to another country?
-How much control was it necessary to reliquish in the direction and completion of this massive project? Did you see it as a collaboration? What did loss of control add to the work?

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