Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds installation at the Tate Modern in London was one of this year highlights.
The tensions between the blandness of the neutral colour and basic layout, and the sheer size and density of the installation; between the fine texture and uniqueness of each individual element and their huge number – about 100 million handmade seeds – , reinforced by the strong smell of porcelain dust, all at once, created a massive emotional and intellectual stimulation.
In the documentary film that accompanied the installation, Ai Weiwei described in simple, direct terms why and how the project came about, offering a conceptual framework to help interpreting the sensorial and emotional depth experienced with the installation. The following is a text that presents some of the framework dimensions: individuality, industrialisation, craftsmanship, scale, tradition, automation, humanity, alienation.
Recently, I came across a book Ai Weiwei speaks with Hans Ulrich Obrist that brought me back to the atmosphere of the Sunflower Seeds installation. Here are some of Ai Weiwei statements that I found most inspiring, because of their simplicity and depth.
At the time of the interview, Ai Weiwei was very much passionate by the blog he had recently started and was later shut by the local authorities:
Q.: “Do you remember the first thing you put in your blog?”
A.: “The first thing was just one sentence…..You need a purpose to express yourself, but that expression is its own purpose”
About the origin of Ai Weiwei extremely succesful architectural work and practice:
Q.:”Did you have any heroes in architecture?”
A.:”I had one influence in architecture……I went to a bookstore and I found a book called The Wittgenstein House….He (Wittgenstein) built a house for his sister, in Vienna. And so, because I like his writing, I was fascinated by the book, and the building was absolutely great. From the larger concept to the details – like door handles and heating elements – it was all designed by him, and he was so precise, and he controlled the architecture so clearly……He’s so articulate in his expression. He tried to crack the absolute truth there. The effort, the repeated effort, made all his practice become one – just one act…..He said that the way good architects distinguish themselves from bad architects is that the bad architects always try to do everything that’s possible while the good ones try to eliminate the possibilities“.
Another pearl of wisdom emerges when Ai Weiwei describes his critical attitude towards planning that reduces our sensitivity to all that happens around us and to the opportunities that are available.
Q.:”The Wittgenstein house triggered everything, and then you built your own studio, and then it became almost like an avalanche of buildings. And that wasn’t planned? There was no master plan – it just happened?”
A.:”No, nothing was planned. The most beautiful thing that ever happened in my life was by coincidence and not by plan. And it often happens because you don’t plan. If you have plans, you only have one go. If you don’t have plans, it often turns out well because you’ve followed the situation. That’s why I’ve always jumped into unprepared situations, the most exciting conditions.
A final thought I found very inspiring is about the transmission of knowledge through mundane artefacts, in the specific case bricks, that at the same time associate a natural feel with the intelligence of a solution elaborated over hundreds of years.
Q.: “Or how you would explain the recurrent use of brick (in your work)?
A.: “I like to use the most common objects. Even in my art, I use things like shoes or a table. These objects are already cultured – people have already put a lot of knowledge and thought into them. I think I’m dealing with that in the most effective way. And also bricks are still cheap and the easiest part of the building. They have a very natural relationship with our hands, in terms of their size and weight. It’s almost like you can build them blindly, or it’s like using words to write something – it’s very easy”.