Tuesday 19 October 2010

Seeds for thought

Since the opening of this year’s Unilever Series display in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall on 12 October, already several different legal issues have been raised.

Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds installation basically consists of carpeting the entire Turbine Hall with 100 million individually hand crafted, but each apparently identical, porcelain sunflower seeds.

The original idea was that visitors would be able to walk over and handle the sunflower seeds. This obviously prompted the question as to whether it was ok to take a sunflower? – Just as a souvenir, of course … After all there are 100 million of them…

On first impressions, you’d think this clearly amounts to stealing. Or even vandalism. Yet it is reported that the artist himself does not think this is so clear, having said:

"If I was in the audience I would definitely want to take a seed. But for the museum, it is a total work, and taking a seed would affect the work. Institutions have their own policies. But I know I would want to take a seed."
Then, there are the health and safety laws which have to be considered. Indeed, within a few days of the exhibition opening, the Turbine Hall was closed, preventing visitors from walking over the sunflower seeds. Eventually, it was admitted that it was feared that the ceramic dust resulting from visitors walking over the sunflower seeds gave rise to certain health and safety concerns. In a statement, the gallery said:

"Although porcelain is very robust, we have been advised that the interaction of visitors with the sculpture can cause dust which 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 members of the public to walk across the sculpture."
But finally, from an Intellectual Property perspective, the work gives rise to a number of fundamental questions, including: What IP rights subsist in the work? and Who owns those rights?

The named artist, Ai Weiwei, has confessed that he made “perhaps three or four” of the sunflower seeds and, in fact, he had the seeds made in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, also known as the “porcelain city” of China. Is it really enough to have merely had the idea to be considered as the creator or author of a work? Or perhaps Ai Weiwei commissioned the work and had the rights assigned to him.

So while it is great to ponder the nature and meaning of art, Sunflower Seeds demonstrates that it is also important to consider the legal aspects.

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