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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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