In my latest column for Ideas Tap I pull back the curtain on the creative cock up to ask, should we celebrate failure?
Slave labour gets a very bad press in this country. ‘Sweatshop’ is like a dirty word out there.
Thankfully, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is bucking the trend. China’s Andy Warhol (he set up Beijing’s very own East Village, you know, and probably likes tomato soup) has turned his Tate Modern turbine hall residency in to a veritable festival of sweated labour. 100 million hand-made porcelain sunflower seeds don’t grow on fair-trade organic trees you know; those babies are pumped out by the very best in gnarled and stumpy fingers.
Sadly, Weiwei’s artistic triumph has fallen a little flat since the health and safety Gestapo stopped visitors from crunching across the cracking and seedy floor. And yes, I think the comparison between the Health and Safety Executive and one of the most notorious terror organisations of the 20th Century is justified. Remember; these are the guys who took away your conker fights. Apparently, inhaling large amounts of ceramic dust is ‘dangerous’ and could trigger off ‘serious health conditions’, forcing visitors like me behind an airport-style tension barrier to meekly fondle single seeds, like extras in an Oxfam commercial.
Of course, what Sunflower Seeds really proves is that the good old fashioned cock up is still alive and well in the world of art. As Brian Eno pointed out on one of his Oblique Strategy cards (like Family Fortunes for synth-obsessive drug addicts), to ‘honour thy error as a hidden intention’ can be the secret to unlocking your creativity. While many of us would view Bowie’s Lodger-era guitarist constantly falling out of time while playing drums as a serious cock up, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ is arguably the strongest single of the whole triptych…
First published, Ideas Tap, October 2010