Seed Bank

By: Peggy Nelson
October 11, 2010

Where a squirrel is not, but perhaps wishes he was: celebrating autumn in Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern.

Or, perhaps not. In a celebration of inauthenticity, Artist Ai Weiwei has carpeted the giant space with fake sunflower seeds. They’re striped. They’re porcelain. They’re all over the floor. And there’s over 100 million of them.

But although vast, it’s not an installation of indifference. Each seed is twice-fired, once before and once after being handpainted by a resident of Jingdezhen, the Chinese town that once supplied fine porcelain to the imperial court. Ai’s Sunflower Seeds project has reportedly saved the town from bankruptcy, at least for one more winter.

In terms of realist art, the seeds are realistic renderings in porcelain, almost biological models, like the work of the Blaschka family, of glass flower and marine invertebrate fame.

But unlike the delicate glass, these seeds are hardy. Visitors are able, and are encouraged, to walk on them, lie on them, roll around in them, do seed-angels. Faced with such great numbers, we abstract over the individuals to confront and reify the mass. And if the mass is inviting or unaggressive enough, our confrontation becomes play.

Human nature is, among other things, whimsical. Maybe there’s no gap at all between the real and the not-real, in an aesthetic sense. But I think there is. That’s where we laugh.

Perhaps it is sometimes nice to fool Mother Nature.


Kudos, Spectacles

What do you think?

  1. I just posted this in a comments thread over at the Guardian, where people are debating the validity of filling a major exhibition space with fake seeds. Here’s a little more about the reality, and validity, of making stuff up:

    “I think this is the kind of installation that rewards experiencing it in person. For example, I didn’t think much of the idea of Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project UNTIL I saw it, and saw everyone sunbathing, and felt the simulated glow.

    The thing about these kinds of simulations, Eliasson’s Sun, Ai’s Seeds, is that in the experience they become real. They’re real objects in a real space, surrounding the real you. Yes, the space is created and not “natural,” but isn’t that just a more literalized metaphor for how we perceive all the time? How do we know what nature, or anything, is like, absent our experience of it? Philosophers and scientists (and poets and artists!) are still struggling with that one. The best answer so far is that we don’t, our experience of reality is some kind of mashup between “out-there” and “in-here,” and when we try to separate one from the other, we find that all the boundaries shift and wiggle around, and things don’t stay in their categories.

    And so since we’re always in it, why not be a little more creative and whimsical? The flip side of that whimsy is that it can help us to see just how deeply embedded we are in the “out-there,” and suggest points of greater connection and more responsible stewardship. An installation like this might not suggest that to everyone, but it contains that potential within it — like a *seed.

    But that’s admittedly abstract. Go to Turbine Hall, walk on the seed bed, sift some seeds, do some seed-angels, perhaps have a seed-fight — and then reevaluate the critique.”

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