Tate Modern

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern was built to house turbines. The dimensions matched this requirement. As an exhibition space, the Turbine Hall steers artists towards the theatrical. A big space sets up the expectation of big impact. The Unilever commissions have also evolved their own cultural traditions for the way we, as viewers, or visitors, respond to them. After Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Holler and Miroslaw Balka we now half-expect some opportunity to interact, to participate en-masse without having to actually speak to each other. We expect mass entertainment.

Right now the far reaches of the Turbine Hall are out of bounds. Sometime before Christmas the area was raked over one last time and then roped off. Now the active part of Sunflower Seeds, the part that catches your attention most readily, is a sort of DVD extra tucked away underneath the mezzanine.

The sunflower seeds themselves resist contemplation. They are massed in a silent shingle bank, grey against the grey of the building. Before I arrived, I already knew that each small seed had been made by hand; this detail had been part of the Tate media campaign. Standing by the tensa-barrier looking over the mass of seeds, the work itself seemed to slip back and forth between two states: one moment it was a single artwork by a named artist, the next moment it had disintegrated, or proliferated, becoming millions of separate objects, each one created by an anonymous and unknowable individual, someone who was a maker, but not, for the purposes of Sunflower Seeds, an artist. And as I stood there, I was experiencing two powerful responses to this perceived duality: awe at the incomprehensible amount of labour involved, and revulsion that the experience I was having in front of the work implicated me in this great labour. All the while, the detail that my eye kept going back to and following across the space was the pencil line on the floor designating the edge of the seed-covered area.

If, as was the case during the first few days, the public had still been allowed to trosh onto the slithery bank of ceramic sunflower seeds, I would have stooped, picked up a few, examined the brush strokes of black paint, and perhaps gained a more tactile engagement with the work. As it was, I turned away from the work and watched the film instead. It was easier than contemplating the irresolvable duality of the work.

In the film Wei Wei comes across as a friendly chap. He takes us to Jingdezhen, the city where his ceramic replica sunflower seeds were made. He visits every stage of manufacture, sometimes standing sagely to one side, as if invisible, at other stages chatting easily to the workers, offering guidance. ‘They’re all nice people’ he says. The effect is somewhere between philanthropic factory owner and children’s TV presenter; he’s checking on production, and also illustrating how the whole process works.

By the end of the film I had built up an urgent need to look at the seeds again. The guided tour of ceramic production animated the individual seeds. It made me want to consider the way each seed had passed through so many hands. It also normalised the production process. By structuring the film around the manufacture, it made the outcome seem inevitable, pre-destined, natural: as though it was the ceramic seeds that were driving the process.

I left with a sense of Sunflower Seeds as an allegory for the globalised supply chain. Our actions as consumers here, in the places where we shop, set up extraordinarily complicated sequences of manufacture and transport which we have no need to consider or even acknowledge.