Ai Weiwei & ‘Couriers of Taste’

Earlier this year, I was invited to send my few Ai Weiwei sunflower seeds to Danson House for inclusion in their group exhibition ‘Couriers of Taste’ (1 April – 31 October 2013). I’d been given a few seeds from Ai Weiwei’s studio for the sporadic blogging, writing and filming of his protest party back in November 2010 (somehow I can’t believe it’s been that long!)…and also an ex-boyfriend might have swiftly stolen a few from the Tate Modern Turbine Hall installation when we went to see it back in early 2011. Shhhh. Who didn’t do this, or at least try to?

‘Couriers of Taste’ (1 April – 31 October 2013) explores the relationship between international trade, global consumerism and cross-cultural influences…the movement of goods and how this exposes and increases an awareness of other cultural products. It looks at both positive and negative perspectives of these themes from exploitation in production, racism, the demise of world commerce, territory, consumerism and tempestuous trade links whilst reflecting on Danson’s house past as a place built for leisure and decadence, which is steeped in the 18th Century trade histories, with links to a slave-run plantation in the West Indies. Artists in this group exhibition includes Gayle Chong Kwan, Stephanie Douet, Ed Pien, Meekyoung Shin, Susan Stockwell, Karen Tam, Laura White, WESSIELING and seeds collected from Ai Weiwei’s 100,000,000 ‘Sunflower Seeds’ project. WESSIELING is actually on the board for Chinese Arts Centre where I am currently Research Curator. Small world as always. In fact, I know or have worked with most of the artists as part of this show!

Artworks are grouped in thematic rooms, such as Karen Tam‘s reconstruction of an opium den, which explores the carelessness of cultural stereotypes. Visitors are invited to lie on the ‘opium beds’ and explore authentic and inauthentic props, such as an opium pipe and cheap replica perfume, Opium Yves Saint Laurent.

Karen Tam, 'Opium Den' (2013) as part of the exhibition Couriers of Taste, Danson House, photo by Ann Purkiss

Karen Tam, ‘Opium Den’ (2013) as part of the exhibition Couriers of Taste, Danson House, photo by Ann Purkiss

In the context of ‘The Trader’, Tam’s fake ornaments sit alongside alien furniture by Stephanie Douet and an invasion of computer components, ‘Fire Wire’, by Susan Stockwell as contemporary hi-tech consumerism encroaches on every aspect of his world.

Susan Stockwell, Karen Tam , Ed  Pien, Karen Tam, Opium Den, Couriers of Taste, Danson House,2013, photo Ann Purkiss

Susan Stockwell ‘Firewire’ (2013) as part of the exhibition Couriers of Taste, Danson House, photo by Ann Purkiss

Works by Gayle Chong Kwan connects Danson House’s heritage to the theme of consumerism through a sculptural work that references the masked allegorical figure in the Danson House dining room with the theatrical engagements between different cultures. Laura White ‘Esque Collection’ fills the final room with a riot of colour and everyday stuff with her eye-popping installation of 26 sculptures, playing off WESSIELING’s poem constructed with advertising slogans.

Gayle Chong Kwan and Stephanie Douet, Couriers of Taste, Danson House, 2013, photo by Ann Purkiss

Laura White and WESSIELING, Couriers of Taste, Danson House, 2013, photo by Ann Purkiss

Laura White and WESSIELING, Couriers of Taste, Danson House, 2013, photo by Ann Purkiss

WESSIELING 'National Dress' (2013) as part of the exhibition Couriers of Taste, Danson House, photo by Ann Purkiss

WESSIELING ‘National Dress’ (2013) as part of the exhibition Couriers of Taste, Danson House, photo by Ann Purkiss

Finally, seen to be at the heart of the exhibition is the ceramic sunflower seeds collected from Ai Weiwei’s Tate Modern Turbine Hall installation in 2010. I, like other visitors, wanted one (or two) to take home. The seeds for this exhibition were gathered via a social media campaign by Sinopticon, Day and Gluckman and Danson House, from all corners of the world from Bristol to Brooklyn. Recently, they received 10lbs of seeds from a chap called Matthew who was involved in transporting the work to New York.

“As a whole, the piece is quite large and unwieldy, and they weigh tonnes”, he explained. “Due to this, many of the little buggers escaped, and because of the volume, time, and expense of all of this, the general opinion was to not be frantic when a few squeaked away…Every attempt was made to corral and collect the larger leaks, but I personally took it upon myself as a big fan of Ai’s to track down any and all I could… Given Ai’s politics it seems he would be happier with them in the hands of the working man (like myself), as opposed to them being commoditised and hoarded by the ruling class.  Maybe this is part of the work?” – Matthew

They are seen to epitomise the complexities of trade in the movement of art itself, thus referencing the art market, and through the mass media of “the people”, even, when at the time, the artist lived under house arrest. Somewhere in that cabinet are my few seeds. To me, they represent a specific moment in time, in art history, in my own understanding and relationship with China, Chinese culture and contemporary Chinese art, and with Ai Weiwei. Each seed owner will have a different relationship to their seed, and a different story to tell…which I’d love to hear. If you have any seeds that you’d like to share e-mail seeds@bexleyheritagetrust.org.uk as the exhibition is on until 31 October 2013. I’m sure they’d love to hear from you!

Ai Weiwei 'Sunflower Seeds' on show as part of Couriers of Taste, Danson House, 2013, photo by Ann Purkiss

Ai Weiwei ‘Sunflower Seeds’ on show as part of Couriers of Taste, Danson House, 2013, photo by Ann Purkiss

Ai Weiwei 'Sunflower Seeds' on show as part of Couriers of Taste, Danson House, 2013

Ai Weiwei ‘Sunflower Seeds’ on show as part of Couriers of Taste, Danson House, 2013

This exhibition is part of the SINOPTICON project, curated by Lucy Day and Eliza Gluckman (Day and Gluckman) and founded by artists Gayle Chong Kwan and Stephanie Douet, an on-going contemporary art project that considers value and taste, fantasy, replication and the stereotyping of images through the form and decorative narrative found in chinoiserie. ‘Chinoiserie’, a French term meaning ‘Chinese-esque’, was a European style inspired by China and the East.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s