Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010. Installation view, Tate Modern.

The tragedy of contemporary Chinese art—and I believe that it is at present an intensely tragic one—lies in the inability of its makers to fully exploit the critical potential of their work.

As Martina Köppel-Yang has indicated with reference to writings by the cultural historian and theorist Stuart Hall, all forms of cultural production, including those associated with contemporary Chinese art, can be understood as “reworkings…inadequate to their foundations” and, therefore, as “constituted by an infinite, incomplete series of translations.” To which Köppel-Yang has added a further observation that in the particular case of contemporary Chinese art those serially incomplete translations not only involve the reworking of images, attitudes and techniques historically associated with Western modernist and international postmodernist art in relation to the localized demands and pressures of an autochthonous Chinese art world, but also, as an inescapable consequence, a suspension of the notion that contemporary Chinese art is simply a repetition of its non-Chinese precursors. In light of which, it becomes possible to uphold contemporary Chinese art, like all other forms of culturally hybrid “postmodernist” art, as a suitably indeterminate locus for the performative (that is to say, actively interventionist) deconstruction of authoritative cultural meanings.

Within the context of the contemporary Chinese art world, however, this deconstructivist understanding of critical possibility has been constantly overwritten by a number of intersecting cultural, social and political factors. First, there is the persistence of a traditional Chinese cultural resistance to states of disharmony which continues to inform the tendency of a great deal of contemporary Chinese art toward a somewhat unchallenging aestheticism, a tendency exacerbated by the attempts of Chinese critics and historians such as Gao Minglu and Lü Peng to develop localized, culturally essentialist, forms of “Chinese” textual interpretation that travel explicitly against the grain of deconstructivist uncertainty. Second, a governmentally supported return to a neo-Confucian belief in the desirability of social harmony, which now runs throughout the mainstream of contemporary Chinese society and which coincides with the traditional Chinese view that art should act as a form of constructive social commentary and/or as a focus for aesthetic self-cultivation (wenhua). Third, the continuing tendency of many of China’s officially supported art academies toward formalistic and indeed craft-based approaches to teaching that leave most graduates unaware of the critical possibilities of contemporary artistic practice. And fourth, the imposition of legal restrictions on the public exhibiting of artworks that might be perceived to undermine governmental authority and/or the integrity of the Chinese nation-state. As a result, art produced and exhibited under the title of contemporary Chinese art has tended not towards the active and often highly disruptive deconstructivist criticism characteristic of Western modernism and most international contemporary practice, but instead what might be thought of as subjective forms of realism commensurate with the politically acceptable notion of a constructive reciprocity between individual artistic creativity and the collectivist demands of contemporary Chinese society.

There are, of course, contemporary Chinese artists who have sought to go beyond these localized restrictions on cultural expression by making and exhibiting artworks that are discernibly critical in intent. Indeed, in the case of some, including the internationally celebrated figure of Ai Weiwei, that criticality is linked to an open involvement in activism within mainland China. It is therefore possible to make a distinction between a highly conservative mainstream and a more radical fringe within the mainland Chinese art world. That said, it is not entirely clear that “radical” elements within the Chinese art world are, in terms of their role as cultural producers at least, as critically engaged as they might first appear. Of key importance here is a continuing inability even among the most obviously radicalized of contemporary Chinese artists to fully exploit the critical potential of their work as a site of performative deconstruction.

Exemplary of this inability to exploit the deconstructive possibilities of contemporary Chinese artistic practice is the installation Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei, which recently opened at Tate Modern in London to a mixture of critical acclaim, official censure and satirical public derision. Sunflower Seeds is an ambitious work, comprising many millions of individually hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds laid out carefully across the floor of Tate Modern’s vast turbine hall. Moreover, it is one that can be understood, as promotional materials published by Tate Modern indicate, to act as a politicized allegory pointing on the one hand towards Chinese Communist Party propaganda during the Cultural Revolution that sought to represent Mao Zedong as the sun and the Chinese people as a heliotropic mass of sunflowers, and on the other to the everyday Chinese cultural practice of the shared eating of sunflower seeds—the latter being open to interpretation as a politically seditious act of unofficial social interaction. The difficulty with Sunflower Seeds, however, is that despite the seemingly impeccable credentials of its originator, there is little, if anything, that allows us to see the work in specifically interventionist critical/political terms. While Tate Modern’s “official” reading of Sunflower Seeds is suggestive of a deconstructive intertextuality associated with critically interventionist forms of modernist and postmodernist art, in practice the work would appear to have no actively engaged critical focus beyond its institutionally designated role as a symbolic signifier of a rather generalized resistance to authoritarian power. Indeed, one might go further in this regard by arguing that the abstract theme of resistance to authority that the work connotes can be understood to uphold rather than to critically deconstruct established forms of institutionalized critical/political discourse by playing safely to an international audience largely ignorant of the specific conditions of political struggle within Mainland China. What is more, if one shifts one’s interpretative register away from the literary-allegorical towards the visual it is possible to view Sunflower Seeds not simply as a generalized allegory of political resistance, but in addition (and somewhat paradoxically) as a weakly illuminated simulacrum of the dusty grey streets of Beijing and by extension a metonymic signifier of the suppressive climate of centralized political power that, despite thirty years of reform and opening, continues to pervade Mainland Chinese society.

It could, of course, be argued that the media sensationalism surrounding the opening of Sunflower Seeds is the outcome of a laudable attempt on the part of Ai Weiwei to provoke politicized debate in the public sphere. Moreover, it could also be argued that the Tate Modern’s decision to restrict public access to Sunflower Seeds shortly after its opening on the advice of health and safety officials, who concluded that direct audience interaction with the work was in danger of raising potentially life threatening amounts of ceramic dust, is indicative of the capacity of such works to actively disrupt the smooth working of public institutions. Another, perhaps less charitable, interpretation is that Sunflower Seeds is simply an incompetently conceived and produced work, whose technical and conceptual shortcomings significantly curtail any meaningful critical engagement with contemporary Chinese politics by positioning the work, somewhat bathetically, in a state of restrictive entanglement with the concerns of localized non-Chinese institutions and attendant forms of political correctness.