Just Paint

I’ve often wondered why so many contemporary artists seem to exhibit signs of OCD in their work. Admittedly, I am neither an art critic nor a psychologist, but this “diagnosis” springs to mind whenever I see work in which the artist has spent countless hours reiterating a single motif.

One case in point: the recent Charles LeDray exhibit (workworkworkworkwork) at the ICA in Boston. I mean, what does making thousands of itsy-bitsy ceramic vessels (each one unique) say about the artist’s mental state? The LeDray show brought to mind an overstock sale in a dollhouse supplier’s warehouse.

Charles LeDray vessels

So I was primed to slap the same OCD label on Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist responsible for the ill-fated installation of 100 million (!) hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London this fall. The exhibit hall was quickly cordoned off after concerns were raised about the respiratory dangers from the silica dust kicked up when visitors walked through the seeds. Reading about this snafu in the New York Times, I initially thought Ai had merely one-upped LeDray in the “miniature ceramics taken to extremes” contest.

Ai Weiwei "Sunflower Seeds" at the Tate Modern

But then I watched Ai’s “making of” video and was by turns intrigued and charmed by his creative process and its result. I’ve watched the 14-minute video several times now, and its effect is as hypnotic as the questions it raises about work, tradition, community and art are profound.

The contrast between Ai’s Chinese collectivism and LeDray’s American individualism is striking. Unlike LeDray, who shaped and painted each miniature vase with his own two hands, Ai employed over 1,600 people — almost an entire village — for over five years to produce the seeds. In the video we see the villagers digging the clay and reviving centuries-old ceramic production techniques to cast the seeds in quantities Ai calls “beyond imagination.” (Thirty stages of production are required to transform a clump of earth into a fake sunflower seed.) We watch as women painstakingly apply three or four stripes of black paint to each seed, cheerfully working in groups, some chatting into cell phones pressed shoulder to ear. They are smiling, grateful to be employed.

“Can you give us more work?,” one young woman asks the artist. The village’s ceramic industry was going bankrupt before Ai launched his project. Ai imagines that his seed-art project will become a mythic episode in the town’s history. The sunflower already has a place in the history of Chinese art. In Communist imagery, Chairman Mao was the sun and the sunflowers were his loyal followers, each containing the seeds of China’s future production and prosperity.

“It is a good way to work,” the artist asserts, observing that painting and packaging the seeds for shipment is piece work that can be performed at home by women of all ages juggling household and childcare chores.

Although I only experienced it on video, Ai’s exhibit moved, touched and transported me in ways that LeDray’s vases, viewed up close, did not. Wi intended his Tate Modern installation to be a tactile experience, while LeDray’s vases were shelved out of reach in glass cases at the ICA. The sound of the seeds crunching under visitors’ feet or the scrapping as a museum attendant rakes the pile at the end of the day adds an aural dimension missing from the LeDray exhibit. So it is ironic, and sad, that the Ai installation’s tactility was its ultimate undoing.

In an era with historically high unemployment in the U.S. and the attendant angst about how globalization and technology are changing whole industries, I find it oddly soothing to see these Chinese villagers taking pride in doing manual work that most educated Americans would dismiss as mind-numbingly tedious. I almost envy the simplicity of their days spent working side-by-side with neighbors and relatives in a shared endeavor. No long commutes, no office politics, no rushing to meet deadlines, no guilt over their work-life balance. Of course, I know there are tradeoffs, but some days I wouldn’t mind finding a pile of fake sunflower seeds and a paintbrush on my desk with the instructions: “Just paint. Have a pleasant day.”

LeDray vessel photo: from Throwing Shadows, courtesy of the artist and Sperone/Westwater, NY
Sunflower photo: Tony Kyriacou/Rex Features

3 Responses to “Just Paint”

  1. 1 Betsy Munnell November 6, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Perfection. BOY YOU CAN WRITE.

  2. 2 Juliet Henderson November 7, 2010 at 6:07 am

    Glad you too like Wie Wei’s work and approach.
    Like Betsy I warm keenly to the wonderful way your words open up a fresh new perspetive on things. However, I would be rather wary of romanticising Chinese collectivism, since though it may suggest levels of community and sharing we ‘westeners’ envy, it also connotes a political regime which has almost zero tolerance of voices of difference and disagreement.There’s a pretty grim political reality hidden behind the ‘just’ in Chinese art practices these days.

    • 3 jandev November 7, 2010 at 6:20 am

      Well, of course, that would be one of the biggest “tradeoffs.”
      Lucky you, living near London — have you been to see the seeds? Viewing from a balcony seems remote — what did you think? Why not just hand out masks to everyone?

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