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There is art, there is China

At Tate Modern, Seeds of Discontent by the Ton

LONDON — Last Wednesday I had a close encounter with “Sunflower Seeds,” the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s oceanic new installation piece in the cavernous Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern here. The work consists of roughly 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds covering a vast expanse of floor to the depth of about four inches, and visitors were invited to wade right in. The black-and-white seeds crunched delightfully underfoot, and the whole thing resembled an indoor pebble beach, with people strolling about and then plunking down to sit or recline. One young man had buried himself.

As it turned out, my timing was lucky. By the next day “Sunflower Seeds” — the ninth in the Tate’s annual series of large-scale installations known as the Unilever commissions — had become the third to run into significant safety problems. In consultation with the artist, the Tate decided that people would no longer be allowed to enter the work, saying that the dust they stir up posed a health hazard. Now it can be viewed only from behind ropes or from the bridge that spans the Turbine Hall one floor up.

I could say I told them so, except I didn’t. I merely commented to my husband, as we looked down from the bridge a few days earlier, that the piece looked like an upper-respiratory disaster waiting to happen. It had not yet opened to the public, and was empty — except for one person off in the distance who was raking the seeds and wearing a surgical mask. That was a big clue.

My inkling was confirmed during my Wednesday visit, as I watched kids dashing through the seeds, followed by little clouds of dust, like Pigpen from “Peanuts.” And as other visitors settled into or sifted through Mr. Ai’s creation, we soon noticed our hands turning gray, as if we’d been reading a newspaper for hours.

What is the dust? The seeds, cast in porcelain, are painted with black slip — essentially liquid clay — and fired. Some 1,600 residents of a village that once provided porcelain to the imperial court produced them over the course of several years. This process yields a matte finish that looks exactly like that of real sunflower seeds, but slip lacks glaze’s imperviousness to wear and tear.

The use of slip without glaze is highly unusual on porcelain, although typical on stoneware, with which it bonds more completely. But “stoneware” lacks the cultural resonance of “porcelain,” which refers to a form the Chinese invented, and using glaze would have made the seeds less seedlike and probably very slippery, creating a different problem for the public. All this suggests that Mr. Ai and the Tate must have known that his piece was something of a gamble from the start; so far, it appears that they took it and lost.

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