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Tate Modern: Museum as Megaphone

April 9, 2011

Museums love talking

about “political statements.” They rarely make them, though−certainly not as overtly as the  Tate Modern, among others, did this week. Following the lead of New York’s Guggenheim Foundation, the Tate devoted prime roof-edge real estate to a banner on behalf of Ai WeiWei, whose ceramic Sunflower Seeds currently cover the floor of the museum’s Turbine Hall. The renowned “social sculptor,” also an outspoken critic of his government, was grabbed this week by Chinese authorities for vaguely enumerated “economic crimes.”

Release Ai WeiWei blared the sign dangling from the Tate roof, a former power plant — real estate more commonly reserved for names of currently running exhibits:









The Guggenheim expressed “disappointment in China’s reluctance to live up to its promise to nurture creativity and independent thought, the keys to ‘soft power’ and cultural influence.’’ The Tate set up a second field of “sunflower seeds” to call attention to political prisoners.

Koons "Bunny"

Ai made his name in the 1990s with iconoclastic gestures and works like painting Coca-Cola logos on ancient Chinese pots and flipping the bird in front of international icons like the White House, Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square, according to art critic Holland Cotter, before moving on to more significant works like “an outdoor structure from 1,001 doors salvaged from Ming and Qing houses that had been eliminated by rampant development in Chinese cities.”  Ai’s sometimes called “China’s Andy Warhol” for his pop sensibility, though Jeff Koons’s monumental kitsch also comes to mind.

As the Nobel Committee learned when it awarded Liu Xiaobo’s Peace Prize to an empty chair, even international adulation offers but slim cover for Chinese citizens who dare criticize their government. Still, it may be what small insulation there is in a judicial system ruled more by caprice than consistency.

Ai WeiWei in his Beijing studio.

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