The other day I spotted this headline: “Tate Buys 8 Million ‘Sunflower Seeds'”
For a moment, I thought that London’s famous Tate Modern was branching out into living history, or perhaps starting an heirloom seeds program like that of Pennsylvania’s Landis Valley Museum.
The single quotes should have tipped me off. These were hand-painted porcelain seeds, part of a 100 million-seed art installation by Chinese artist Ai WeiWei. As I read on, I realized his original 2010 installation had a few similarities to some outdoor museum programs.
Seeds and plants–real ones–are important to many living history museums, as is the food that comes from them. But sometimes for the sake of interpretation, convenience, or cost, artifice comes into play. Imitation foods, products, people, or buildings can become stand-ins for the real thing, references to times and objects that no longer exist.
Mr. Ai’s handpainted seeds have multiple references: sunflower seeds were an important food source in difficult times; the tiny nuggets reminded him of tweets; Mao had called the Chinese people “sunflowers.” Mr. Ai hired 1600 Chinese artisans to make the seeds in a town where traditional porcelainware had been the mainstay for over 1000 years. In that sense, this project was a new application of traditional skills honed over generations–something some of the best living history museums also try to do by learning, preserving, and adapting historical methods and practices.
At first, Tate staff encouraged visitors to touch or wade through the pile of porcelain seeds. But they soon realized that the visitors’ movements caused the seeds to grind together, releasing hazardous dust. How many times have living history museums encouraged visitors to touch, feel, or immerse themselves in an activity and then had to back track when something went awry?
I don’t want to overextend the analogy. I was just having fun thinking about this modern art installation in terms of living history. But the folks at Landis Valley’s heirloom seed operation may want to take note: Sotheby’s sold a portion of the work–100,000 seeds–in London last year for more than half a million dollars. That’s about $5.60 per seed. Perhaps instead of printing an order form, Landis Valley should hire an auctioneer.
UPDATE Feb 3, 2013: Here’s a link to a CBS Sunday Morning feature on Ai WeiWei and a show of his work at the Hirshorn. Powerful.