Sunflower Seeds | 2010 | Ai Weiwei
100 Million Porcelain 'Seeds'
Tate Modern Art Gallery | London, England
In 2010 Ai filled the enormous Turbine Hall of London's Tate Modern with exactly 100,000,000 porcelain sunflower seeds, each made by a craftsman from the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Hundreds of individuals had therefore been hired to produce by hand what appeared to have grown from nature.
It evokes complex associations, connected to Chinese history and culture. Like Ton of Tea, it is made from a substance (porcelain) made for export that has long sustained the Chinese economy. Questions about how it was made led the audience to greater understanding of contemporary mass-manufacturing practices in China. Much is still made by hand in an economy where machines are expensive and labor (and human life in general) is cheap. The artwork, therefore, was a clever pretext for calling attention to a politically sensitive issue.
The sunflower is an important Chinese communist symbol. Chairman Mao compared himself to the sun and his people to sunflowers. In Beijing, sunflower seeds are sold by urban street vendors. For Ai, a Beijing native, they evoked happy memories of wandering the city with friends. By 2010, however, due to a series of fines, arrests, and brutal beatings, he was essentially a prisoner in his own city. In this light, his seeds, cast on the ground, evoke an oppressed, downtrodden society, far from the ideal that Mao described.
It was first exhibited at the Tate Modern art gallery in London from October 2010 to May 2011. Viewers were originally able to interact and walk across the sunflower seeds, but after the Tate Modern Museum recognized that the dust emitting from the installation was harmful to viewers lungs, they fenced it off.
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