Visitors are invited to walk across the surface of the work and discover that each seed is in fact a unique porcelain replica, and over the course of two years each of over 100 million seeds were individually handmade and have been specially produced for the commission.
“For Ai, sunflower seeds – a common Chinese street snack shared by friends – carry personal associations from the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). While individuals were stripped of personal freedom, propaganda images depicted Chairman Mao as the sun and the mass of people as sunflowers turning towards him. Yet Ai remembers the sharing of sunflower seeds as a gesture of human compassion, providing a space for pleasure, friendship and kindness during a time of extreme poverty, repression and uncertainty. There are also contemporary resonances in the work, with its combination of mass production and traditional craftsmanship inviting us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geopolitics of cultural and economic exchange.”
Sunflower Seeds runs 12 October to 2 May 2011
Tate Modern, Turbine Hall
Essay on SUNFLOWER SEEDS by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei
Sunflower Seeds is an installation of the famous contemporary Chinese conceptualist artist Ai Weiwei (1957) first opened in 2010 in the Turbine Hall of London contemporary art gallery Tate Modern. Through his installation the Chinese dissident artist transmits a variety of meanings to the audience, ideological values and beliefs of different levels. What we see is surely directly affected by what we know and what we believe as Berger (8) reasonably marks, and on a whole, this masterpiece of minimalism truly combines a huge variety of ideas and themes, strategies and tactics of the artist, who manages to be both a traditionalist and an innovator, domestic and cosmopolitan, esthete and politician, individualist and social activist. Being the way to satirize and dramatize over China’s revolutionary past, Sunflower Seeds is also a work to glorify Chinese traditions and Chinese people, as well as think over the contemporaneity and future of global civilization in general.
The project is presented in the form of more than 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds strewn over the area of the largest hall of the museum. Porcelain sunflower seeds cover an area of 1000 square meters with a 10 cm layer and weigh about 150 tons. The uniqueness of this exhibit is that each seed is full sized and is hand-made by from china by artisans from Jingdezhen, the homeland of the famous Chinese porcelain. More than half a million Chinese workers worked on the exposition for 2.5 years. Each element was made and painted individually using an old multi-step technology of porcelain processing, which makes the installation even more unique. According to Ai Weiwei, to understand China with its history it is not enough to read books about it, it is necessary to see everything live, to be able to “touch” the history, therefore in the first days of the display the installation was not fenced, i.e. viewers could go through this “boundless, gray sea” and form their own ways of seeing.
Thus, on the surface is the idea that the porcelain seeds directly symbolize the millions of Chinese people, similar in appearance but different inside. At first glance, the seeds, the amount of which exceeds the population of Beijing five times, seem to be identical as people in the crowd, but each seed was made manually special and therefore none of the seeds is like another. In this way, Ai Weiwei fills minimalism with Chinese features: nowhere else but in China the aesthetics of ordered plurality can have such an obvious social and political meaning. In support of this idea, it should be noted that it is not the first time the artist addresses the myths and realities of Chinese multiplicity. During another of his outstanding exhibitions which took place three years before at the German festival Documenta and was called “Fairytale” Ai Weiwei declared that he would bring to Kassel 1001 Chinese providing them with everything from tickets to luggage. The town where the Grimm brothers wrote their famous tales would have made fabulously happy the semiliterate peasants and workers, which simultaneously touched the issue of Western culturalization of ignorant nations, and current Chinese modernization – because the current economic growth does not benefit ordinary people, and for them all kinds of Biennale and modernism are like fairy tales. By Sunflower Seeds, the artist also brings the question of the role of the individual, the little man in the modern fast-changing globalized world: there are billions of us, and we all are aimlessly scattered around the world just as these porcelain seeds, where masses suppress individuality and personality mutates into pulp (Weiwei).
At the same time, this raises the issue of everyday hard work of millions of Chinese people, the issue of economics and resources of China. In particular, Ai Weiwei demonstrates how the work of many artisans from porcelain cooperatives forms in a work of art into one unending rustle of porcelain shells. The room full of man-made seeds strikes the imagination, and the viewer leaves the hall realizing that the origins of the Chinese economic wonder lie in the hard work of the Chinese nation. In addition, porcelain (or china), at the time, became the synonym to China and Ai Weiwei used exclusively the traditional method of porcelain production, which historically has been among the most expensive Chinese exports. As Tate Modern review runs, “Sunflower Seeds” offer us a closer look at the phenomenon of “Made in China” and the geopolitics of cultural and economic exchange today. In particular, the audience is invited to think on the fact that Tate row for several years fed many anything but wealthy Chinese families. On the one hand, it is an irony about modern art launched on the conveyor and weary from the crisis of overproduction, when any commodity may become a spectacle (Debord 118). On the other hand, there is no cynicism towards the collective author, because the master shows an example of non-traditional use of traditional Chinese material. He believes that china could again find many applications in our modern lives, and teaches society to think big and creatively toward finding new meanings for traditional things.
Some may compare the visual effect of the installation with late landscapes by Monet when impressionist tried to convey the water surface on canvas. However, most interpreters will probably see not a natural element in “Sunflower Seeds”, but the human drama. Indeed, at a deeper level, “Sunflower Seeds” is a reference to the Cultural Revolution in China 1966-76, and the chaos it spawned. At the time, the image of Mao Zedong on propaganda posters was likened to the sun, under which blossomed the people of China (Clunas 119). Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party was also portrayed surrounded by sunflowers with rays coming from Mao as if from the sun. In this regard, Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei associates millions of sunflower seeds with the Chinese people ready to turn their heads after Mao and his legacy, whereas in real life for the people who experienced the agricultural experiments of the Great Leap Forward and the following years a handful of seeds could be salvation from starvation. In addition, for the old Chinese intellectuals the floor covered with spit husk which party activists often left after their meetings became a symbol of the new lumpen proletarian order of the 1960’s. Here the artist, who grew up in communist China, indulges in apprehension of this traumatic experience both in jest and earnest.
Thus, Ai Weiwei’s art often formally relies on utopian ambitions of the “new world” of constructivism. At the same time, the artist creates subtle political works that take a critical stance against radical changes taking place in China. In general, the works by Ai Weiwei are so simple and so symbolic that people even very far from the problems of contemporary art need no explanations of critics to understand the hidden meaning of his works and versatility of their message.