Byline: by Philip Hensher
At first it looks like nothing at all. As you walk down the slope of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, there seems to be nothing but a grey floor. As you have come to see a major new installation by the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, (Tate Modern, London, until May 2, 2011) you might feel a little puzzled.
But then there seems something different about the texture of the floor. There it is, after all: massive, unobtrusive, refined and grand.
The best of the Tate's Turbine Hall commissions have been simple and immense: Olafur Eliasson's giant sun, or the huge crack that Doris Salcedo had running down the full length. Ai's wonderful installation takes its place among the most memorable, and everyone should go to see it.
He commissioned Chinese porcelain manufacturers to make more than 100million porcelain replicas of sunflower seeds. These have been spread, to a depth of ten centimetres, across the full width of the Turbine Hall.
It's unfortunate that health and safety concerns about porcelain dust now mean it can only be observed, and not experienced up close. When I first saw it, you could walk across the field, sit or lie on it; pick up a handful of the 'seeds' and drop them. It had a rich, sensory appeal: the labour of walking across the field was a heavy one and there was a dense crunch underfoot, like a stony beach. The 'seeds' were very satisfying to hold, and there was something agreeable about the way porcelain warms up in the hand. It's a great shame a large part of the pleasure of the piece has had to be abandoned.
But Ai's intentions are not just to please the senses, but to make you think …