Review

The One and the Many: Damien Hirst at Gagosian and Ai Weiwei at Mary Boone

Speaking of large numbers of identical elements assembled in a way that lets the viewer’s capacity for finding patterns in randomness substitute for decision-making on the part of the artist, Ai Weiwei’s artwork Sunflower Seeds recently went up at Mary Boone. That is, went down: thousands of quite realistic-looking ceramic sunflower seeds, white with faded black stripes, handmade in a city in northern China known for its ceramics, and arranged, in this case—Sunflowers appeared in a much larger version at Tate London in 2010—in a long, low, truncated square pyramid shape on the gallery floor. Some of the things a piece like this might be about, if it had any content as well considered as its impeccable execution and branding, are the relationship between the grueling human cost of China’s rapidly developed industrial economy and its increasing cultural and political weight in the world; the way that individual acts of labor disappear into wholes that are nonetheless made of nothing but those acts; the relativity of value judgments (are they husks or are they seeds?) and the possibility of making something new from the discards of the old; money, again; the beguiling and mysterious weirdness of systems, like language and art, in which the meaning of any single point is entirely determined by its relationship to other points; and something like “in union there is strength.” These were The Observer’s first five ideas, anyway, but the appeal of work like this is that every viewer is at total liberty to come up with his or her own.

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