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Painting 100 Million Sunflower Seeds: A Futile Art Endeavor?

How many people does it take to paint 100 million tiny porcelain sunflower seeds? Oh, just about 1,600 people in the small Chinese city of Jingdezhen. That is, in essence, the latest installation at Tate Modern: Artist Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds fills a room about 1/3 of an acre in size. It's meant to be an interactive installation. As Adrian Searle writes in The Guardian, "you can trudge over them, walk or skip or dance on these seeds ... or scoop up handfuls and let them run through your fingers."

Except you can't, because Tate's latest press release basically forbids interaction. Turns out porcelain is bad for the lungs.

Visitors to the Tate Museum interact with Weiwei's intallation i i

hide captionVisitors to the Tate Museum interact with Ai Weiwei's installation

Ai Wei Wei/Tate Photography
Visitors to the Tate Museum interact with Weiwei's intallation

Visitors to the Tate Museum interact with Ai Weiwei's installation

Ai Wei Wei/Tate Photography

The press statement reads:

"...we have been advised that the interaction of visitors with the sculpture can cause dust which could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time."

Searle writes in his review that the installation is "audacious, subtle, unexpected but inevitable." To that might we add, "the most futile work of art of all time"?

Sunflower Seeds 2010, an installation at London's Tate Museum i i

hide captionSunflower Seeds 2010, an installation at London's Tate Museum by artist Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei/Tate Photography
Sunflower Seeds 2010, an installation at London's Tate Museum

Sunflower Seeds 2010, an installation at London's Tate Museum by artist Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei/Tate Photography

To be fair, at least the idea behind the installation is pretty interesting. Each seed is a unique, hand-painted sculpture from Jingdezhen, a small town famed for its artisanal production of Imperial porcelain, now a struggling trade.

And the artist Ai Weiwei, well, he's both celebrated and controversial in China. He helped design Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games, and he has also been a vocal critic of the Chinese government. His blog — which included lists of more than 5,000 children who were killed in the 2008 earthquake — was shut down by state officials.

Artist Ai Weiwei holds porcelain sunflower seeds from his installation i i

hide captionArtist Ai Weiwei holds porcelain sunflower seeds from his installation

Ai Weiwei/Tate Photography
Artist Ai Weiwei holds porcelain sunflower seeds from his installation

Artist Ai Weiwei holds porcelain sunflower seeds from his installation

Ai Weiwei/Tate Photography

Ai brings these experiences and more to his Sunflower Seeds. Art critic Laura McLean-Ferris explores the possible messages behind the exhibit in review for The Independent. She writes:

"Is this about the way we look at China? Do we see a label that says 'Made in China' and inwardly shrug at the thought of millions of faceless factory workers? Or about Chinese-government censorship, so much in the news following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo? Do we see those oppressed or killed under the regime of Chairman Mao, cut off before they could grow, or a city full of immensely skilled crafts-people, whose skills are no longer needed in mass-industrialized China? All this, yes, and more."

Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds will be at the Tate Modern through 2011. You can't play with or pocket the seeds, but it is assuredly still a sight to behold.

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