Figure 1: Ai Weiwei and his installation at the Tate Modern, hand-painted porcelain. 2010.
Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds is an installation made up of 100 million hand-painted porcelain “sunflower seeds”. Altogether, the seeds weigh about 10 tons, and can be configured in two ways. They may either be displayed as a large rectangle, contained by walls on three sides, or as a sculpture, achieved by pouring the seeds from above onto large pile without a structure containing them (Bingham 2010). The installation has been exhibited in multiple galleries in 9 different countries, but originally filled the entire floor of a room in the Tate Modern in London (AiWeiweiSeeds). Initially, visitors could walk through the field and interact with Ai’s installation, however, as the porcelain produced an excess of dust, to which inhalation and exposure are a health risk, Ai and the museum decided it would be best if the installation were not interactive. One of Ai’s goals in creating this project was to depict the idea of ‘Made in China’, as mass production immensely pervades Chinese society (Praun 2012: 4). Ai’s choice to produce the hundred-million seeds in the city of Jingdezhen is significant because historically, this region is known for porcelain production. Each sunflower seed was made by “individual craftspeople in a ‘cottage-industry’ setting, rather than in a large-scale factory” (Bingham 2010). Additionally, the stone used for the seeds was extracted from a specific mountain in the region, which coincides with his devotion to telling a narrative about historical and modern Chinese society. All of Ai’s decisions in the creation of his installation represent the prevalence of Chinese mass production. When speaking about his inspiration for the project, he noted that sunflowers and their seeds are representative of the Cultural Revolution. Since “the sunflower faces the trajectory of the red sun, so much the masses feel towards their leadership” (Ai 2010). Depictions of Mao often included sunflowers to emphasize the idea that his almighty power was like that of the sun’s. Sunflower seeds, then, represented the common people who idolized Mao. Because of this, sunflower seeds supported the political revolution spiritually, as well as materially, as they have always been a common street snack in China. However, Ai described them as more than just a snack, as during the revolution, sunflower seeds satisfied so many in hunger (Debin 2016). The political and historical motifs in this piece are representative of Ai Weiwei, as he constantly strives to depict contentious subjects through his art.
“About Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds.” Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds. Accessed January 30, 2019. http://www.aiweiweiseeds.com/about-ai-weiweis-sunflower-seeds.
Ai Weiwei, Tate Modern. “Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds.” October 2010. Accessed January 30, 2019. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/unilever-series/unilever-series-ai-weiwei-sunflower-seeds.
Bingham, Juliet. “‘Sunflower Seeds’, Ai Weiwei, 2010.” Tate Modern. June 2010. Accessed January 30, 2019. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/ai-sunflower-seeds-t13408.
Debin, Megan Lorraine. “Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds).” Khan Academy. 2016. Accessed January 30, 2019. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/global-contemporary/a/sseeds-ai-weiwei.
Praun, Tessa. “Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds.” Magasin 3, 2012, 4.