Activism through Art: Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds”
Written by Sydney Hsieh
Sunflower seeds: small, unique, and fragile; we consider them cheap edibles. Sunflower Seeds was a 2010 Tate Modern Installation by the Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. Shedding their shoes, toddlers and adults enter the endless pebbled path. With crunching footsteps, they step into a sea of sunflower seeds. They find themselves entranced by each seed’s unique texture and form. Discovering that each was an exquisitely crafted porcelain piece, hand painted, molded, and fired to resemble a real one, they might wonder what their role is in this work of art.
Ai Weiwei carpeted the Turbine Hall of the gallery with more than 100 million porcelain replicas of sunflower seeds. Ai had them made by Chinese artisans in the city of Jingdezhen, in northern Jiangxi, China. For at least one thousand years, the city has been famed for its high-quality kilns and the production of imperial porcelain. The artist hired around 1600 people to create porcelain fragments that would be displayed on the floor of Tate Modern instead of adorning an imperial palace. Almost everyone in the town knew someone who was making sunflower seeds. “Even taxi drivers were talking about it,” Weiwei said in the Tate Gallery’s Artist Interview.. A 15-minute documentary produced by Tate Gallery features the artist walking around archaic mills and workshops. Artisans are seen collecting the clay and kaolin, molding, firing, and gathering into groups to paint, wash and glaze the porcelain pieces.
One brushstroke, two brushstrokes, three. Skilled artisans, usually women, painted each of these miniature objects d’art in workshops or at home. At home, the women could work for an hour while taking on household chores. By emphasizing traditional craftsmanship in a cottage industry, Ai draws a contrast between cheap, mass-produced goods stamped with “Made in China,” and intricate pieces that highlight the beauty of ancient Chinese crafts.
The two years of the project boosted the area’s ailing economy. Ai said that workers were paid living wages. When one of the Chinese workers was asked if she was happy to work on the project, she smiled and responded, “Of course! Brings business!” Ai remarked with a grin: “now they are asking when we can start again. I shall have to think of a new project.”
Ai Weiwei chose a link with the sunflower as a metaphor of the Communist leader, Mao Tse Tung and the people of China. The symbol of the sunflower was ubiquitous during the Cultural Revolution in China. Propaganda images depict the masses as sunflowers, turning towards the sun: Chairman Mao. As Ai wrote in his proposal for the Tate Modern Unilever Series, “In the times I grew up, it was a commonplace symbol for The People, the sunflower faces the trajectory of the red sun, so must the masses feel towards their leadership.” A sunflower seed, in this case, represents an individual, who can easily become lost among the faceless millions.
Through Sunflower Seeds, Ai creates an intimate experience for the audience, enabling visitors to experience the Chinese identity in modern Chinese society: one that faces the dangers of conformity, censorship, and the lack of personal freedom. A sunflower seed is thus an ironic symbol of the struggles of the Chinese individual with autocracy and individuality. How do audience members walking across sunflower seeds find themselves part of their struggles?
Politics aside, sunflower seeds also evoke a personal memory for the artist. Ai Weiwei grew up in a poor district in Xinjiang, China, and he remembers that sunflower seeds were a common street snack that was carried in the pocket and shared with friends. He recalls 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.” The artist’s use of sunflower seeds thus transcends both political and personal matters, serving as Ai Weiwei’s trademark for expressing activism through art.
Being an outspoken critic of the Communist Party, the Chinese artist faces political troubles in his home country. During his Tate exhibition on April 3, 2011, he was arrested at the Beijing International Airport. The artist was placed under house arrest for 81 days on charges of tax evasion. However, the artist asserts that his “true offense” was his advocacy of freedom and democracy. His passport was withheld by the Chinese government for 4 years. It only took Ai’s poor health and confessions of his “crime” to announce his release. The Chinese authorities restricted Ai’s social media, his main instrument of criticizing the corruption of the Chinese government. The self-established artist based in New York, became “the ultimate enemy of the established power, but still without a crime,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. Ai is an enemy of the state. Ai is a revolutionary, putting his life on the line to be heard. Ai Weiwei’s creation of Sunflower Seeds is more than a cry for individuality, it is a reflection of his own sealed fate—a life sentence of resistance.
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Sydney Hsieh is an Art nerd, Tolkien enthusiast and history lover. She is an aspiring high school student from Taiwan who is fond of graphic design and promoting historical literacy through aesthetic posts on Instagram!