Autumn 2010 saw the Tate Modern unveiling the latest commission in The Unilever Series, Sunflower Seeds, by the renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Born in 1957 in Beijing, China, where he lives and works, Ai has exhibited internationally, including recent solo shows at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; Haus der Kunst, Munich; and has contributed to many group exhibitions around the world, including at the São Paulo Biennial; Documenta 12, Kassel, Germany and Tate Liverpool, UK. Ai also founded the design company Fake Design and co-founded the China Art Archives and Warehouse in Beijing. His work is held in many major collections, including Tate Collection (Table and Pillar 2002).
Commented museumpublicity.com: The sculptural installation appears at first to be a vast, flat landscape of sunflower seed husks, covering the east end of the Turbine Hall. Visitors are invited to walk across the surface of the work and discover that each seed is in fact a unique porcelain replica, one of over 100 million individually handmade objects which have been specially produced for the commission.
This is the largest work Ai has made using porcelain, one of China’s most prized exports, with which he has previously created imitation fruit, clothes and vases. Although they look identical from a distance, every seed is different, and far from being industrially produced, ‘readymade’ or found objects, they have each been intricately handcrafted by skilled artisans. All of them have been produced in the city of Jingdezhen, which is famed for its production of Imperial porcelain. Each ceramic seed was moulded, fired at 1300°C, hand-painted and then fired again at 800°C. Over the course of two years, over 100 million of these were made, forming a mass of objects that weighs over 150 metric tonnes, covering 1000 square metres of the Turbine Hall. The casual act of walking across their surface contrasts powerfully with the precious nature of the material and the effort of its production.
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 is a sensory and immersive installation, which visitors can touch, walk on and listen to as the seeds shift beneath their feet. However, the tactile, engaging nature of this work also encourages us to consider highly pertinent questions about ourselves and our world. What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for the future? Ai Weiwei has said “From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society. Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.”
Commented Tate Modern’s Chief Curator Sheena Wagstaff,
:“Ai Weiwei has created a truly unique experience for visitors to this year’s Unilever Series. The sense of scale and quality of craftsmanship achieved in each small perfectly formed sunflower seed is astonishing. In trying to comprehend their sheer quantity, Ai provokes a multitude of ideas, from the way we perceive number and value, to the way we engage with society at large.”
Well said, after all Ai has in recent years succeeded in doing just that – poetically provoking statements about society’s way of thinking and successfully engaging us by the sheer simplicity of the visual appeal of his installations. So when I recently visited the Tate Modern in October 2011, my excitement was deflated when on the third level, I entered a room and saw…
Now I had read reports that there were health concerns of the dust stirred up by the trampling of visitors’ feet and the “health risks” that might arise when the sunflower seeds are rubbed together, brought about when visitors interact too directly with the work… but surely there is a better way of displaying this?
Then again, on second thought, perhaps not…
The installation “Sunflower Seeds” consisting of a hundred million seeds hand-crafted in porcelain and hand-painted by 1,600 skilled workers in keeping with ancient Chinese tradition appeared to suddenly represent an invisible menace leading to the artist’s subsequent confinement.
The gallery’s new director, Chris Dercon, said: “Tate remains deeply concerned about Ai Weiwei’s detention. Recent events have made Sunflower Seeds an ever-more poignant commentary on the importance of the individual in society. At a time when Ai cannot speak freely for himself, it is important that his message continues to be heard through his art.”
The installation therefore renews the focus on Ai’s disappearance and detention without charge by the Chinese authorities. The conical display on the third floor of Tate Modern of ceramic sunflower seeds, now comprising just under a 10th of the original installation, is perhaps a most apt response.