Last wednesday I went to the Tate Modern to see Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds’ exhibition. I didn’t know much about it before I went.
The seeds have a great presence. I was profoundly calmed and awakened by them. It felt as though each seed was rustling with vitality, which perhaps they are: one hundred million seeds individually handmade and painted by some sixteen-hundred people employed from an otherwise economically-depressed Chinese town. A project which expresses love and unity and individuality, set in motion and overseen by a man with great presence of mind and heart; an artist and a socially active, connected individual. I didn’t know all of this initially, only felt their serenity and beauty; their depth and their unintended silence. They were like a vast, inviting urban beach in the huge industrial space of the Turbine Hall.
When the exhibition first opened at the Tate in October 2010 the intention was for the public to play among the seeds. Unfortunately, movement on the seeds raised a toxic dust, and with concerns over health and safety the Tate took the decision to put a cordon around the installation. Without any interplay the seeds became only half an artwork: a different kind of artwork entirely to that which was intended.
Ai Weiwei has been detained in custody by the Chinese Government for morbidly, almost comical “suspected, unspecified crimes”. His whereabouts, and those of many people connected to him, are unknown. The exhibition, cordoned off and silent, unwittingly become a reflection of the artist’s own silence. The symbolism of this and the loss of this great man struck me deeply. It awoke a powerful desire in me to roll unclothed upon them, returning them to the state of playfulness for which they were intended: to respond to the artist’s desire for interaction and to express the lust for life which he currently cannot express. I wanted to wake people up as the seeds had woken me. In a room adjoining the exhibition the public were invited to record questions for Ai, or leave responses to his questions. Not only did Ai create an interactive exhibition but he was looking for exchange with the public.
I wished to make a statement in solidarity with Ai about freedom yet I did not wish to do anything which might be construed as aggressive or illegal, particularly towards the Tate, which is an institution I admire. I rang and wrote to the Tate’s Press Office, requesting the opportunity to walk upon the seeds naked. It struck me that to do this with the Tate’s consent would constitute a far stronger symbol of freedom than to run the risk of being removed by security. It would serve to highlight the freedom of expression that we have in this country, and not some kind of bizarre protest about being naked. The exhibition was due to finish on May Day, a traditional day for the workers to stand up for their rights: to protest and be heard. Perhaps because it was the bank holiday weekend, there was no reply from the Press Office.
I did not know that I would go through with it until the Monday afternoon, standing ready at the cordon. My action was intuitive and personal. I was naked and painted, reflecting the beach-like yet man-made husks in a vast old power-station, wishing to invite questions about freedom: every individual’s freedom to move and express as they see fit; and on a grander level, the freedom that each society allows.
I took a few minutes to calm myself down and tune in to the magical quality of the seeds and the hall. I had asked a couple of friends to come with cameras. I didn’t want to tell any press or many people beforehand, because I didn’t think I would go through with it if I put too much pressure on myself. I wanted to minimise disruption to the Tate, and yet felt implicitly invited: by the Tate and Ai: to be myself; to give a response to this beauty as I felt fit, and to act in solidarity with Ai.
I stepped onto the seeds without my shoes and took my dress off as I walked, showing the painting on my body (a large sunflower and the words freedom on my front, and thank you Ai Weiwei on my back). I don’t remember walking on the seeds. I do remember hearing someone shout bravo, getting off the seeds, smiling at Tate staff and leaving the building clothed again and without recrimination. It has been a week of waves of nervousness, emotion and joy.
I feel so proud and grateful to live in this country, and I felt this intensely as I left the exhibition: the stark contrast of our nation compared to others. I felt an affinity with Ai Weiwei, for his state of silence, and for the projects in which he has been involved. I spent a year in Sri Lanka in 2004/5, caught up in trying to help people get back into the swing of their lives, of life itself, following the tsunami. I understand something of the impulse which sings so strongly in Ai: to record people’s tragedy, to support local growth and development, to move against corruption, and to give people a voice. When I returned from Sri Lanka I realised that I had slowly become used to the fact that women were less important than men, poor far less important than rich. I felt an immense gratitude then for this country. I am equal here. I had a taste of what it is to be unheard, and it was sad and shocking. With all its faults, with all our ups and downs, we are so fortunate here. Ai Weiwei is not fortunate in his country. His beauty is not supported nor venerated but feared by those in power. He has lost his voice. That is an appalling and shocking thing for anyone, yet sharply intensified by the fact that he is a jewel of a human being.