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May 23, 2011 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Sunflower Seeds, Twitter, and Ai Weiwei

Each sunflower seed is kiln-fired twice—once before being hand-painted, and once after. Visitors could walk in them, lie in them, hold them in their hands, until the volume of porcelain dust was deemed a health hazard. A mass of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, each unique, crafted by artisans in Jingdezhen.

What is the point of Googling Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds? Looking at them on a screen defies their tactility, scale, and hazardous dust. You can read, as you just did, about how someone else let them run through their fingers. But you’re not the one clogging your lungs, or leaving with fine porcelain powder on your fingertips. Is there anything to be gained if you can’t be there in real life?

We could ask Weiwei, but he is being detained in China for ‘economic crimes’ (for being a critic of the state). His online life seems to be particularly inconvenient for the Chinese state and its infamous ‘great firewall,’ as does the online backlash against his arrest. A mass of leading art galleries, including the Tate Modern, The Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Serpentine Gallery have launched an online petition calling for the release of Weiwei, saying this:

“Our institutions have some of the largest online museum communities in the world. We have launched this online petition to our collective millions of Facebook fans and Twitter followers. By using Ai Weiwei’s favoured medium of “social sculpture,” we hope to hasten the release of our visionary friend.” (http://www.change.org/petitions/call-for-the-release-of-ai-weiwei)

Social sculpture? The Sunflower Seeds are sculpture. They are social. When one person runs them through their fingers, they do so with the knowledge that someone else has before them—that the artisans in Jingdezhen have handled each and every one. Their tactility connects disparate people in opposite corners of the globe. As do Facebook and Twitter.

Social sculpture is not new, nor is it online-dependent. Social sculpture seeks means of enhancing inter-connectivity- encounters of individuals and their imaginations—in a communal environment. Social sculpture tries to find ways to emancipate human relativity and in doing so believes that the imaginative potential stirred by connectivity allows space to question what we have, and imagine something better. The artist who initiates is just a facilitator. The participants are the creators.

Likewise, Jack Dorsey calls Twitter “a utility…extended by the user and the developer ecosystem that grew up around it” (readwriteweb.com). As a user-driven tool, Twitter crosses into what the Social Sculpture Research Unit calls “connective practices, which explore the role of imagination and other modes of thought in transformative processes. Informed by an expanded conception of art, we are active both within and beyond the sphere of art” (social-sculpture.org).

The Sunflower Seeds and Twitter are different. Their medium is different—one is handcrafted porcelain, the other an internet service. Their location is different—one is in a gallery (The Turbine Gallery, at the Tate Modern in London), and the other is in ‘cyberspace.’ One was conceived by an artist, the other by a public database programmer. Their method is different—one communicates through touch and tactility, the other through 140 typed characters. One is art, the other isn’t. Their means might be different, but the ends are the same.

It is because of this coalescing of ends that Ai Weiwei’s ‘real life’ sculptural works and his extensive online activities make sense as a body of work by one artist. What is really threatening to the Chinese state though, is the immediacy by which Weiwei’s online activity reaches a global audience. Before his blog was shut down, Weiwei posted up to five times a day. His now-stagnant Twitter account has 83,807 followers. Rather than hiding from constant surveillance, Weiwei put everything online, as a kind of assertion of freedom. His impetus to make himself visible continues even after his arrest. Several galleries are holding hastily put-together Weiwei exhibitions, magazines are running Weiwei editorials, the Weiwei Facebook site is inundated with ‘Where is Weiwei?’ comments, and you are reading this article.

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