Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds Prove Hazardous to Visitors and Staff

Masked staff upkeep Ai Weiwei's poisonous sunflower seeds (photo from

Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds at the Tate’s Turbine Hall space in London opened to a good deal of rejoicing. Viewers and critics alike were entranced by the installation, a field of 100 million sunflower seeds that were actually carved from porcelain. An abundance of press photos show exhibition-goers frolicking in piles of seeds, tossing them up into the air, making seed-angels and having a great time. HOWEVER! The Tate has since been forced to alter Ai’s exhibition due to health hazards: the tons of porcelain seeds were kicking up a fine ceramic dust, easily breathed into the lungs of art aficionados. Visitors can now only gaze at Ai’s piece from a cordoned off observation deck.

The UK Guardian reports:

Newly installed signs said that the health risks of inhaling ceramic dust from the tiny seeds as they rubbed up against each other were too great. The public must keep off the art. It was like looking at an empty beach from a packed promenade.

A pretty apt summation of a lonely looking patch of gray. The ironically named viewer Sandy Shells is quoted, “We make a decision when we come to see something whether it’s dangerous or not,” arguing that its the viewer’s own choice to risk their health when experiencing a piece. I think Chris Burden would agree. Visitors seem generally upset that the Tate is keeping them from experiencing the art how it was meant to be seen: up close and personal, stomped through.

Letters to the Guardian point out another angle of the decision to limit interaction with the piece: its impact on Tate staff. Matthew Cookson writes,

While the health and safety of the general public is important, it will be Tate Modern staff who will suffer from prolonged exposure to such dust. That is why many of them quite rightly refused to work on the exhibition, supported by their PCS union reps, and ensured that management took their views seriously.

The guard and attendant angle is rarely covered by the media, but in this case it’s perhaps the most important. Sure, visitors can stomp through and emerge unscathed, but what about those who have to spend days exposed to the dust? Guardian critic Jonathan Jones comments on the exhibition’s changes in a recent piece, noting, “There is more to art than interaction, after all. Personally I quite like just looking at stuff,” in true intellectual fashion. The critic asks that the public not be disappointed at not being able to play around in the work, rather, appreciate it for what it is, a representation of the infinite expanse of humanity. Contemplate it from afar, he says, “like a philosopher.” How hermeneutical!

New York Times art critic Roberta Smith reacts to the closing in a critic’s notebook piece. She points out that the reason that the seeds are kicking up dust is that tiny porcelain sculptures aren’t glazed; she speculates that a glaze would’ve proved too slippery for the installation. The critic calls out the Tate for its continued safety infractions, and suggests the museum start giving away the seeds, a la Félix González-Torres.

Personally, I’d prefer the conservation team at the Tate to have covered the problem prior to the exhibition’s opening. There’s no suitable coating that could have stopped the dust, but still provided a tactile surface? For such a vast (costly) exhibition to come up with such a huge last minute glitch is a little embarrassing. Here’s to hoping a solution can be found so the work can be felt and seen how it should be.

Stay tuned to Hyperallergic for an overview of some other life-threatening works of art

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