Every year at the Tate, something different. Metal slides, a pile of boxes, one big crack, a bright shining sun. And for 2010, a hundred million sunflower seeds. They're not real, they're made of porcelain. Every tiny seed has been hand-crafted by an army of Chinese workers. Every ceramic nugget is identical yet different. And they've all been shipped over to London to be scattered deep across the floor of the Turbine Hall. Fancy a scrunchy walk across the broad grey carpet? Well bad luck, because it's closed.
Well, it was closed yesterday when I went along after work. It had been closed earlier in the day, it was closed for the rest of the afternoon, and I'd expect it to be closed again today too. Staff had draped a barrier across from one side of the hall to the other, dividing the audiovisual extras from the exhibit proper. Closed for essential maintenance, said a sign, and that was the limit of the information available. "When will it reopen?" asked a group of ladies (who'd come here specially) to one of the Tate's nearby members of staff. No clues. They tried a grinning bloke in a purple jacket instead, but he just grinned. No chance of stomping across the granular playground, nor even stealing one of the painted kernels, not today.
Lack of activity made for a very tidy exhibit. With the public removed there'd been nothing to do all afternoon but sweep and smooth the tiny particles into a nigh perfect cuboid. Very wide, very very long, and not quite as thick as I was expecting. On the nearest margin it was possible to distinguish individual seeds, but looking further back they merged into an indistinguishable mass [photo]. One set of footsteps created hollows partway along the righthand wall, but every other trace of human activity had been studiously scraped away. A man with a rake walked up and down the lefthand side, occasionally stopping to push seeds off the path and firm them up into a miniature cliff [photo]. The viewing public watched, for lack of any other way to interact, and wondered whether he might soon stop and announce that the installation had reopened. No such luck. No hint either why he was wearing a facemask, although perhaps we should have wondered more.
Apparently there's been a Health and Safety 'issue'. Not with people slipping or falling over, which is the usual Turbine Hall drawback, but with dust. Porcelain's renowned for being dusty, and 100 million trampled chunks have thrown up a lot of the stuff. Inhaling a lot of porcelain dust is dangerous because it can build up in your lungs and lead to pneumoconiosis (and potentially death). You'd probably have to spend three months at the Tate sniffling around on all fours for it to be a serious problem, but you know what public health risks are like. Can't be too careful.
Hopefully they'll sort out the dust issue before Easter. And lucky you if you went exploringonTuesdayorWednesday, because it's simply not seedy enough standing on the sidelines.
Update: Ah, bugger, they've closed it to the public permanently. Now all you'll be able to do is look, from a distance, but never touch. I feel really sorry for the 1000+ Chinese workers who spent months painting the individual seeds, because all their handiwork will now be completely invisible. Whoever planned this public installation clearly didn't think things through carefully enough. As an artistic achievement, Ai Weiwei's exhibit remains remarkable. But as a purely visual spectacle it's rubbish, so don't bother.