Making the Tate’s sunflower seeds

Last week we took a short break in London. On Monday we visited the Tate Modern to see the Gauguin exhibition that had recently opened. On arriving at the gallery we noticed that there was something going on in the Turbine hall. We could see that the floor in a large area of the hall was covered with what appeared to be gravel. There were a few people standing and walking on it with some of them taking photos. However, we weren’t allowed access – the area was cordoned off. There were also a number of people on the mezzanine floor wandering around with folders under their arms. I asked one of the gallery attendants what was going on and was told that the “gravel” was a newly installed work by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, consisting of 100 million individually handmade ceramic sunflower seeds. According to the Tate press release

“Each ceramic seed was moulded, fired at 1300°C, hand-painted and then fired again at 800°C.”

For the first couple of days visitors were allowed to interact with the work – walking and standing on the “seeds” (we hadn’t been allowed access as it was the press showing when we visited). However, on Friday the gallery announced that this would no longer be allowed as they had

“… been advised that the interaction of visitors with the sculpture can cause dust which could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time. In consequence, Tate, in consultation with the artist, has decided not to allow members of the public to walk across the sculpture. “

No details have been provided on the risk assessment that led to this decision, but it appears that the seeds can be crushed underfoot generating dust that could become airborne and then inhaled.

It seems to me that this is either an over-reaction by the Tate to a negligible health risk for visitors, or they have some other motivation for wanting to prevent visitors walking on the seeds.

(see here for further discussion of the health risks)