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Masked staff upkeep Ai Weiwei’s poisonous sunflower seeds (photo from Guardian.co.uk)

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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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

6 replies on “Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds Prove Hazardous to Visitors and Staff”

  1. It’s absolutely ridiculous that the dust issue was not anticipated, particularly in health&safety-obsessed Britain. the piece the way it is now offers no visceral interaction, which has been the entire point of the Turbine Hall installation. (see, for example, the picture on my FB page of me sticking my head in a crack in the floor that was part of Doris Salcedo’s great installation). oh well, one failure in an otherwise successful series is not bad. but it’s egg-on-face time for the Tate. and the timing couldn’t be worse, given the funding cuts coming down the road this week.

    1. The funny thing is that the Turbine Hall is becoming known for these safety mishaps, whether it’s people stepping into the Salcedo crack, getting hurt on that slide piece, and now this. Did people get sunburned by Olafur Eliason’s piece? I’m interested to know more about the funding cuts, this does seem like really bad PR.

      Not to mention exhibition-goer count will probably take a HUGE hit as a result.

  2. Sad it got all the way to the museum before anyone became concerned about health – what about the workers who produced them? I saw the video on how they were made – lots of dust, no masks could be seen anywhere.

  3. Installation artists = BP.

    They don’t care about the human cost or environmental impact of their work. A few benevolent souls like Futurefarmers and Mel Chin have a lower impact, but there seem to be many more Matthew Barneys who pump 10 tons of petroleum jelly into the museum.

    And let’s have Chris Burden decide how people should live. What a wonderful world that would be.

    1. That’s a super interesting way to look at it… how that kind of massive installation work is almost megalomaniacal, one artist imposing a view on the Earth at large. The carbon footprint of all this art making is so rarely talked about… we were better off with the Impressionists, canvases and paint. Though Van Gogh died from that too!

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