I first became aware of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in Seville of all places. I was walking north along the east bank of the Guadalquiver on my last day in that beautiful, exciting, sunny city. This section of the east bank does not have much to offer – unless you like graffiti covered vacant lots. I came across a roller blade/skate boarder park where there was a competition going on – elaborate flips, balancing tricks, spectacular wipe-outs, lots of black, lots of tattoos, some magenta hair, Spanish rap music. Looking across to the west bank of the river I saw a brick chimney and what appeared to be a series of bottle-shaped kilns. I crossed the river at the next bridge and using the chimney as a guide I found myself in a museum of contemporary art, the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC).
The museum is housed in a building with quite a history. It started out as monastery, was used as a barracks in the Napolean invasion, then became the site of ceramics factory (hence, the kilns) and finally in 1997 became the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC). In the grounds of the museum are various chapels, the priory cell, church, the sacristy, cloisters, monks’ chapter, refectory, gardens and orchards.
Inside the museum, there was an exhibition of the works of the Chinese artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei. The focal point of the exhibition was Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” project which was first shown at the Tate Modern in London where he covered the floor of the Turbine Hall with a layer of hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds, a total of 100,000,000 seeds, with a combined weight of 150 tons.
It took more than 1,600 Chinese artisans two and a half years to manufacture this pile of ceramic seeds; each seed is hand-painted and unique, a huge and costly undertaking.
The Seville installation was a smaller version of the Tate installation, consisting of 5 tons of seeds spread like a carpet on the floor of a white-walled room. Outside the room, a video played providing information on the project and showing the artisans working on the production of the seeds. It also showed footage of the original Tate exhibition.
I have to admit that while I could appreciate the sheer effort that went into this piece, and having listened to the video explaining its significance and read further how one of the artist’s intentions is to draw attention to Chinese mass production practices, practices that serve western consumerism at the expense of the individual, as a work of art, it left me completely cold, visually bored. The English poet, Rosemary Tonks, said “The main duty of the poet is to excite – to send the senses reeling” and the same could be said of art in general. Ai Weiwei is a sincere and brave person and there were other Ai Weiwel works on show which better highlighted his talent as an artist, it’s just that this piece, despite the gargantuan effort that went into its production had no visceral impact on me whatsoever.
That is not to take away from the fact that my unplanned visit to Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC) was one of the highlights of my visit to Seville. Though modest in size, the grounds, history and the placement of contemporary art in the white walled hush of a Carthusian monastery is an experience that should not be missed.
On my return from Europe, I was talking to Slim about the paucity of themes or rather the sameness of subject matter in European religious art. You’ve got the crucifixion, the annunciation, the beheading of John The Baptist, the ubiquitous Madonna and Child and endless emaciated martyrs staring skywards like a Brazilan soccer player in a post goal celebration.
Slim, who had just spent the weekend watching back to back Guy Ritchie movies, scratched the location on his head where there used to be hair and said: “Paucity? No one fucking says that anymore. It sounds like a fucking terminal disease. ‘He died of late onset paucity. It was the paucity that got him in the end”. He then stomped out of the room, hitching up his sagging jeans as he exited. He can be an eloquent bugger at times.
Later that day, he came back with a poem called “Great Moments” which was later re-titled “The Sistine Chapel Contract” which has been posted here before but, for the sake of completeness, I am including again.
The Sistine Chapel Contract
Me and the lads
are in the studio
working on our
Madonna and Child
when in walks Mike
with a strange look
in his eyes
and cool as you like
They want me to
paint the ceiling
of the Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel,
they want me to
paint the ceiling
of the Sistine Fucking Chapel.
you could have
knocked us over
with a feather.