x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Art can be dangerous to your health

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's installation Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern in London has been declared a health and safety issue.

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern has been deemed a health risk to visitors.
The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern has been deemed a health risk to visitors.

Art can be confrontational, controversial and downright depraved. But dangerous to your health? Sounds intriguing, but that's the conclusion of Tate Modern in London about one of the most high-profile art installations in the world right now, Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds.

Ai's intentions were impressive. He had filled the famous Turbine Hall with 100 million replica sunflower seeds, made of porcelain and all individually hand-painted. He had hoped that visitors would, in walking across this ocean of pebbles, consider their everyday lives but also Chinese history (the seeds are a popular snack and in Cultural Revolution-era propaganda, Mao Tse-tung was depicted as the sun, while the Chinese people were sunflowers turning towards him) and its industrious present. But there was a problem.

As a statement rather amusingly put it, "the enthusiastic interaction of visitors" meant that enough porcelain dust had been kicked up for Sunflower Seeds to become a health risk.

Now, sadly, visitors must experience Seeds from behind barriers on a raised balcony. And for the Tate Modern - and specifically the Turbine Hall - it's a case of déjà vu. When Carsten Holler made the space into a giant playground with his enormous stainless steel slides in 2006, giant sacks had to be provided to guard against friction burns. Holler admitted he had to pay as much attention to health and safety as he did the idea itself - and acknowledged himself that the slides could be hazardous.

And a year later Tate Modern was again anxiously hoping it wouldn't have to rope off Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth - a wide fissure in the floor of the Turbine Hall which visitors were encouraged to peer into and jump across - after 15 people were hurt in the first few weeks. In the end they simply put a sign up and handed out safety leaflets - although it does say something about the inherent idiocy of humanity that we have to be told not to jump into a hole.

Still, at least all these exhibits remained open. Robert Morris's Bodyspacemotionthings essentially descended into anarchy in the four days it lasted in 1971 - visitors were invited to climb all over the sculptures in what is now the Tate Britain, but took that as their cue to jump around, throw things at each other and, as the exhibition's keeper Michael Compton said at the time, "go berserk on the giant see-saws". Unsurprisingly, there were injuries and the exhibition was wrecked, which made it all the more curious that Tate Modern chose to re-stage it last year. They were happy that it met all the health and safety standards for 2009 - but that still didn't stop 23 people needing first aid in just over a week.

The example of Bodyspacemotionthings is interesting. It suggests that we simply don't know how to experience work like this any more - we're so used to looking at art from behind ropes, when we get the chance to fully interact with it, we go, as Compton put it, "berserk".

Sometimes, though, the various health and safety executives do get it right. Thomas Heatherwick is widely and rightly celebrated for his huge public sculpture work. But perhaps he was just a bit too ambitious with B Of The Bang, his 56m structure of weathered steel spikes to celebrate the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002. Looking like an exploding firework, it leaned further than the tower in Pisa, and was, at the time, the tallest sculpture in Britain. It looked amazing, but it was doomed as soon as a rather serious design flaw was uncovered: the spikes started dropping off. B Of The Bang ended up being fenced off, unloved, and, in 2009, taken down completely. It didn't just damage Heatherwick's reputation, but also his wallet: Manchester City Council accepted an out-of-court settlement of £1.7m (Dh9.8m).

The difference between being impaled by a weathered steel spike falling 180 feet and possibly inhaling some porcelain dust is, of course, huge. But they do share something: this is work that can no longer be enjoyed in the state it was intended. In the case of Sunflower Seeds, one wonders whether the decision - which one imagines was taken with a heavy heart - fatally damages the effect of the piece.

Still, at least the Tate Modern no longer has one problem. Before the dust was kicked up, the real fear was that the stars of Sunflower Seeds - the "seeds" themselves - would surreptitiously make their way into people's pockets as unofficial souvenirs. There was even a notice much like one might see at a perfectly manicured garden: "Please do not remove any of she seeds." But now Sunflower Seeds has fallen foul of health and safety, forcing us to look down on the exhibition from on high, that's unlikely to be an issue.