Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei is a profound work of art in both its simplicity and awe inspiring scope. At first glance, it looks like a pile of sunflower seed husks, but upon closer inspection the incredible reality of this piece becomes apparent. Each seed is handcrafted from porcelain and hand-painted. No two are alike and more than 100 million were created for the initial exhibition that covered the the Turbine Hall at The Tate Modern.
During the initial run of the exhibition, (October 2009 – May 2010), people were encouraged to interact with the installation by walking through, sitting or even lying down amid the seeds, but that was short lived as soon as health, safety, and preservation concerns caused it to be roped off. I’m a little jealous of those who were able to tread through the seeds!
In 2011, the Tate put 8 million of the original seeds on display in response to Weiwei’s detainment by the Chinese government and subsequent disappearance¹. The display, which represents about 1/10 of the original installation, sits in a large pile in an exhibition room on the third floor. While significantly smaller than the original, the intent and deeper meaning of Weiwei’s work has not been lost.
While open to interpretation on many levels, the intent of Sunflower Seeds reaches into a dark chapter of Chinese history and the human spirit. During the Cultural Revolution, (a particularly brutal era in history where people lost basic human rights and were stripped of cultural traditions), Mao Zedong launched a massive propaganda campaign where in some instances he depicted himself as the sun and the people as sunflowers who turn their heads to follow him. However, the artist sees sunflower seeds as a traditional food shared among friends in China and is therefore a symbol of friendship and compassion. This duality of symbolism creates an interesting insight into the human spirit. Even in times of strife and struggle, kindness and goodwill continue to survive.
In addition, Weiwei’s installation offers social commentary on today’s society. The Tate poses several questions to consider while viewing the seeds:
- What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society?
- Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together?
- What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future?
I had the pleasure of spending some time with this installation last summer, but even after an hour of regarding the Weiwei’s work and contemplating these questions I am no closer to answering them. Though, I am reminded of a favorite quote, which sums up my general impression of the piece:
What happens to people who spend their lives afraid to voice their opinions? They stop thinking, most likely.
- Ivan Klíma
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¹He was released in June 2011, but remains under scrutiny.
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