What is an artwork allowed to ask of us? "The town that once made porcelain for the imperial court has been saved from bankruptcy by making sunflower seeds," Adrian Searle writes in his moving five-star review of the current Ai Weiwei piece at the Tate Modern in London. "It is absurd." Ai's piece carpets the already-striking main exhibition hall with approximately 100 million hand-painted porcelain "sunflower seeds" he paid about 1,600 laborers in Jingdezhen, a town once famous for its crafts to fashion. It looks stunning, and it asks similar questions of its audience: what did it take for these seeds to get here, only to be trampled under your shoes or pocketed and cherished at home? How much work—somewhere far away—does it take to make but one of these 100 million seeds? At what threshold does this become absurd? Globalization, we are encouraged to believe, has wounded this town. And now it has saved it, if temporarily.
The effects of globalization—such a ubiquitous yet massive, mysterious term—are all around us, even if its mechanisms would prefer to go unnoticed. It's in the interest of everyone on this hemispherical side of the ledger to focus on the price-chopping and fairly traded coffee; the grist is elsewhere. Which is why Ai's piece is so startling. There's a suggestion of generosity here—an artist, world-famous, sharing his fee to prop up a small town. And there's something ridiculous about it, too—a single man is able to commission that much labor. These ideas and anxieties all converge in the sunflower exhibit, and to Ai's credit, the apparent majesty of it all allows us to draw conclusions that aren't quite so bleak.
In that light, I'm not sure what to make of Banksy's recent opening sequence for The Simpsons. In case you haven't yet seen it:
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