The other day, I wrote about Disorder, a Chinese documentary depicting, in its own hypnotic way, the baseline condition of "absurdity" on display daily in filmmaker Huang Weikai's hometown of Guangzhou. I've been thinking more about what it is Weikai (or any artist, really) wants from the viewer—we tend to associate some kind of educational function to the documentary form, and yet here was one that didn't offer any real data, that refused to identify a culprit. This wasn't a counter to official truths, the way we've grown used to documentaries refining or contradicting what we already know about the world. All one could do with the fragments of Disorder was to meditate on them, how we chose to narrate them, why we chose to laugh or recoil when we did, etc.
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.