Monday, October 18, 2010

be interactive, but not *too* interactive

When high-brow institutions try to appeal to the masses, the results are usually unintentionally hilarious.
Tate Modern is to stop visitors walking over the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's vast field of 100m porcelain sunflower seeds because of health and safety fears over ceramic dust.

As revealed by the Guardian, the Turbine Hall installation has been closed since yesterday morning because of worries that dust inhalation might be a health risk. That means the thousands of visitors who traipsed through the installation between Monday and Wednesday were the lucky ones. The work will now be viewed from the building's bridge.

"The Unilever Series, Sunflower Seeds, by Ai Weiwei is made up of over 100m individually handmade porcelain replicas of seeds," the Tate said today.

"Although porcelain is very robust, the enthusiastic interaction of visitors has resulted in a greater than expected level of dust in the Turbine Hall. Tate has been advised that this dust 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 visitors to walk across the sculpture."

The work is intended to be interactive and to have people walking through it, although some visitors, mainly children, had more fun in the seeds than curators might have liked.
Really, that last line is the money shot, and draws an underline beneath the dilemma that purveyors of "high culture" face in this mass media age.

Naturally things went wrong the moment an audience's interaction couldn't be dictated ahead of time. Much as I adore opera, I find it obnoxious that an audience is expected to know the work beforehand: when they applaud or boo, they're judging the latest performance against a pre-determined canon, reducing the entire evening to an inside joke with formalwear.

I particularly enjoy, therefore, when snooty cultural gatekeepers give lip service to the idea of making art accessible to the general public, and then act horrified when the public acts like, well, an unruly group of people.

[image via the Guardian]

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