Seeds to Ponder


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.

"Sunflower Seeds" by Ai Weiwei, Original Exhibition in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, (Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons)

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.

"Sunflower Seeds" by Ai Weiwei, Tate Museum, London, June 2011, c.b.w.

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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Tate Modern Exhibition Pages

Ai Weiwei on Wikipedia

The Guardian – Detained Artist Weiwei Remembered . . .

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c.b. 2012


27 thoughts on “Seeds to Ponder

  1. It never ceases to amaze me what artists will do and what people call art. I’m not saying this isn’t art, but who would have thought of painting all those seeds and putting them in a pile/spreading them out? I don’t think I would have made it as an art history major! But if I did take those classes, maybe I would then understand why the winners of art contests won. I never seem to like the winners and don’t get why they got the prize and not some of the other entries. This goes for writing, too.

    Great questions to ponder while in the presence of the seeds, though.


    • I never would have thought of anything like this, either! I always learn so much when walking through art museums. I love how they teach you how to look at and interpret it for yourself. For a long time, all I ever did was ask, “What the heck is that?” But now I know to ask, “What is it trying to say?” 🙂


  2. It makes my head spin to think of creating each shell and hand-painting them. If that pile is only 1/10 of the original showing, I can’t begin to imagine how long it must have taken Weiwei to make them all!

    Those are some interesting questions The Tate brought up about their significance. It will take many hours of contemplation to come up with an answer to each of them, I’m sure. Maybe even a lifetime. Very thought-provoking post. 🙂


    • If I remember correctly, Weiwei had a team that helped him create all those seeds. Even still, 100 million is an insane number! 🙂

      Yes, those questions really do dig deep and I fully expect to take a long time to answer them!

      Thanks for reading – I’m glad you enjoyed it.


  3. scrounger1984

    That is amazing! I couldn’t imagine myself making the same thing over and over again. My boredom levels would go off the charts. But still, its great that he had courage enough to do it, especially when he knows that the Chinese government is so paranoid, they’d probably imprison him for it. I wish I were there myself to see it. It doesn’t look like much, just seeing it from photos on a screen.


    • The pictures really don’t do it justice. The sheer size of the pile can only be fully experienced when standing next to it. Still, the idea behind Weiwei’s intentions is very powerful. 🙂

      Thanks for reading!


    • I still haven’t found a really great shot of the original exhibit, but I’m glad my pic of the second display came out as well as it did (and with no people in the background).

      Regardless, its one of those things best experienced in person. I hope this post inspires a visit to the art museum! 🙂


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