Ai Weiwei – Seeds of change?


Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei (b. 1957 Beijing) is the latest artist to exhibit in the gigantic space of the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern gallery London. The commission, the latest in the Unilever series  called ‘Sunflower Seeds’ has only been running  a few days, yet it has already experienced some problems.

an aerial view of the sunflower installation

A 100 million seeds cover 1000 meters of the Turbine hall.  The seeds, made individually,  are porcelain, painted with black slip and then fired, and the matte surface left unglazed (whilst unusual for porcelain, it does – but make the seeds look realistic though the finish is more like Stoneware – which uses slip without glaze).  

other 'sunflowers'

The Chinese invented ‘porcelain’ and  whole villages at a time would contribute in supplying porcelain to the imperial courts.  The  artist wanted to highlight the cultural connection.  This has presented the artist with a problem though: to glaze and not only lose authenticity – but make the seeds slippery and dangerous to walk on – or leave unglazed and risk a health hazard to the lungs because unfortunately, a few days into the exhibition, the public had to be prevented from walking on or handling the seeds as the dust created from friction and handling posed this health hazard.  the installation is now protected by a rope.

 The cultural revolution of 1966 – 1976 China, saw people stripped of their individuality.  Posters of Mao depicted as the sun and the masses as sunflowers leaning towards him, abounded.  Sunflower seeds, a common snack for the Chinese became a symbol of community, pleasure and reassurance in those dark times.  The juxtaposing of mass production and traditional craftsmanship invite us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’  stamp – one of the worlds most recognisable labels.

Beijing National Stadium

Ai Weiwei is a fascinating artist whose art (a collaboration with architects in this case) includes the controversial Olympic Stadium in China (also known as ‘Birds Nest: read about it here) and ‘Remembering’ 2009 for the Haus der Kunst’s façade in Germany.  This installation consisted of 9,000 backpacks (especially made), which stand as a commemorative symbol for the children who died in the earthquake in Sichuan. 

Ai Weiwei 'So sorry'

A lot  the children’ backpacks were found under collapsed schools and these specially constructed ones in five colours spell out the poignant words  ‘She lived happily for seven years in this world’ in Chinese characters on the facade.

Thereis more to be read about this fascinating artist here and here

Ai Weiwei blog and backpack image from here, Soft Ground image and info here
More about this installation here
Sunflower Seeds images from here
Made in China definition here
China Olympic Stadium image from here
The exhibition runs Monday 11 October 2010 – Monday 2 May 2011

Sunflower poster from Here

13 thoughts on “Ai Weiwei – Seeds of change?

  1. Ai-Weiwei’s art is fascinating. I like when the public can interact with pieces such as this one, and marvel at the large scale, yet detailed effort involved in “Sunflower Seeds.”

    1. I quite like the political aspect of it too. Such a shame they had to rope the installation off because of the dust (which I believe they are having analised)

  2. I love the concepts. And I love the idea of how many artists contributed to the creation of these sunflower seeds. BUT–if it were my work–I’d have used REAL sunflower seeds from the start.
    About a year ago there was an installation of small piles of POLLEN at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. It was arranged in symetrical lines over the floor.
    Seeds–pollen–some sof the smallest yet vital natural sources of ‘energy’ in this world.
    Hi Lynda. Btw, if you’re interestd, if there’s music you associate strongly witth the concept of One Earth for All–you’re invited–and anyone else so inclined–to post a link/video in order to try to weave a web of music online.

    1. Hey this web of music sounds great! i’ll look into it – thanks!
      The pollen sounds a really ‘natural’ idea and I can see how that would work, but I think the artist really had to have the porcelain connection with the seeds to show the lindustry, plus the mass production versus the individuality of the seed and the person. I love this work its so multi layered! This is the first time I’ve encountered this artist! I’m glad you enjoy him as mich as me Eva 🙂

      1. The pollen was pretty cool–all those golden yellow conical piles….
        ps, You can post your music choices on your site and drop a link at mine or post the music on my site or…well, you can do it any way you like if you or anyone else decides to weave some sound. Grins.

  3. Fascinating art…I actually like the idea that the sunflower seeds didn’t quite work out as planned. So often, we think of art as something that requires a degree of finish and presentation that sometimes makes the piece static. The work is more open now and subject to interpretations that don’t fix its meaning. Thanks Lynda for putting this together!

    1. Yes! I agree with this:) Was it a ‘happy accident’…or calculated? Who knows but its a great bit of controversy/publicity for the installation 🙂 This man is fascinating and has some wild ideas (all of them rooted politically) I’ll be looking at more of his work – that’s for sure!

  4. I am drawn to this idea as it incorporated many artists working to achieve a final product, each an individual whose work definitely became part of the whole. I am sorry to hear about the dust that was created from this that has prevented part of the experience for which the art was intended, but agree with Al that it gives this creation furthur definition and more of a life, much like our own. Things change. Incredible find, Lynda, and thank-you for sharing this.

    1. Yes I like the collaboration element too Leslie! From the communal seeds that were shared in the dark days to the industry of the porcelain BUT with a difference – as each seed was individually created by an individual. The seeds are even slightly different sizes and painted slightly differently. There’s so much going on with this work – I think it shall be in the news for some time:)

  5. dear lynda,

    it’s been awhile since I last visited your blogsite, but in any case, i would love to trackback all your fascinating posts. i especially love this post you have about Ai Weiwei, it inspires me a lot to think out of the box. his design for the olympic stadium in beijing is a work of art deeply anchored to what is organic and natural such as the bird’s nest. i can appreciate this magnificent work as i am also an architect. it is the same when frank lloyd wright drew his inspirations for the guggeinheim musem from the symmetry of a seashell called nautilus.

    it is a triumph of the human spirit which connects art to people. and thank you for featuring them in your blog. all the best to you.

    1. Hi Marvin! I too am really getting into this artists work. I like the idea of architecture being inspired by nature too – the manmade coming from natures blueprint. Mother Nature is such a wonderful inspiration, though we can’t exactly replicate it we can at least pay homage to it and celebrate it in our buildings. Plus – more and more bulding materials are incorporating organic matter like fossels and special woods.
      Good comment Marvin! Your visits are always appreciated 🙂

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