Saturday, 16 October 2010


 TATE MODERN 16.10.10


I’ve just heard that this installation is to be out of bounds because of health and safety fears. All that effort, those natural resources, the skills, the imagination which needed to come together to make this wonderful experience have been swept away.  From now on we’ll only have permission to look at it from the floor above where, as Rachel Campbell-Thompson the Times Art Critic commented, it will be as interesting as looking at a car park.

Only a few days ago I was queuing with about a hundred people outside Tate Modern. Opening day for the exhibition and only one minute to go... The crowd  surged in – Mohican hair cuts, trilbies, curly black top knots and all – and  some ran down the slope in the Turbine Hall for  sheer joy - or impatience? To my surprise  most turned left to buy tickets for the Gaugin exhibition so I became the third member of the public to tread on the precious sunflower seeds.

Precious they are – and beautiful - each one hand-crafted with a hand-painted striped husk. One hundred million of them. It makes me rethink my stock response to the label ‘Made in China’. Porcelain is one of China’s most prized exports and associated with what is beautiful and expensive, yet here we are casually walking on it.  I kneel down and pick up a handful - I count twenty seeds, each unique. These look edible enough too and I remember hearing that sharing sunflower seeds created a space for pleasure, friendship and kindness when China was experiencing times of poverty, repression and uncertainty.

Ten minutes later and the Hall has been transformed into a beach. We walk slowly and noisily as if on one of Suffolk’s shingle shores. People settle down in clumps taking ‘holiday’ snaps. One young woman lies on her back, star shaped, breathing ‘Fantastic!’ Others sit solemnly close to the wall gazing out across the Hall as if surveying the sea.

I wander across to watch Weiwei’s  short video which shows the people and town  of Jingdezhen where the seeds were made, a town which has been making porcelain for over 1,000 years.  1,600 people worked on the project for two and a half years. We meet  an enthusiastic young girl posing on her newly-bought motor bike and families where women found part time homework fitted in well with home responsibilities.  Al says that the past couple of years will become a myth in the history of the town.  Asked why he made Sunflower Seeds he said
 ‘From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society. Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.’

After the video  I wander back.  I want a souvenir. Should I slip a seed into my pocket? It wouldn’t be missed and no one would know. But I can’t steal. I give myself a get-out clause. This need not be my final decision – I’m bound to come back later bringing friends and family... I do no forsee that never again am i allowed to touch a seed.
AFTER THOUGHT:   The Millennium Bridge spans the Thames directly opposite Tate Modern. On the morning that the bridge opened   I went across on a charity walk. It swayed from side to side and we began to stagger like drunkards.  I was terrified that it would snap. That bridge was closed shortly afterwards on safety grounds, real or imagined. It was modified, perhaps to reassure the public, and now lives happily ever after.  But we shall never experienice 'Sunflower Seeds' again.


  1. I agree it looks nothing if you can't interact with the sunflower seeds... but, having watched the film, I wondered why - why walk on all these beautiful handcrafted things? It seemed not to honour the women who'd made them. I think the artist and Tate might have thought of more interesting ways to make an installation from these - in glass jars, sacks on pallets - I hope they do now re-think the display...

  2. What brilliant ideas! Hadn't occured to me. Perhaps we should lobby the Tate...

  3. I wrote a poem about it ...

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