It is difficult to gauge whether Ai Weiwei anticipated the initial impact of the large-scale commission Sunflower Seeds (2010) in the gray volume of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. For many among its audience, the installation—a vast field of life-size porcelain seeds—appeared from a distance to be made not of real husks but of carefully raked gravel or chippings. Yet, whether the components were handcrafted sculptures or industrial materials, the intended sense of dislocation, curiosity and altered perception still arose. Confusion and wonderment mixed as the mind struggled to grasp the relationship between the individual and the whole.
Covering 1,000 square meters to a depth of ten centimeters, the work’s 100 million seeds were manufactured by traditional methods and delicately painted by hand in the city of Jingdezhen, the major center for the production of Imperial porcelain for over a thousand years. Ai has long been fascinated by the cultural traditions of materials and objects, and of porcelain in particular—the survival of its artisan production, its supreme quality, its early traditions of mass production and global export and the value still invested in it as a cultural artifact in China today. Fabrication of the required 150 tonnes of seeds, from trials to completion, took almost two and a half years, and at its peak employed around 1,600 artisans, placing Ai—a frequent visitor to the community—in the ambiguous positions of factory boss and art patron, controlling workers’ destinies just as the old elites had done. And, like the fragile porcelain seeds themselves, this curious project may bear limited fruit. The Jingdezhen workshops are much reduced—deregulation in the 1980s and the closure of state-owned porcelain firms have left the city exposed to competition from provinces specializing in cheaper wares. Sunflower Seeds, despite its unusual creation, paralleled the growth of materialism, globalization and mass-production in China, and the increasing impotence of the modern worker, creating meaningless products for distant, demanding markets.
The seeds were also potent symbols of the Cultural Revolution. The characterization of Mao as the sun, and the faithful as sunflowers turning to face him, was commonplace. The association here with the hopes and savage disappointments of the time, both spiritual and material, was unmistakable. Tate’s decision to stop visitors walking on the work three days after it opened—a result of health concerns about inhalation of porcelain dust—increased this sense of sorrow and stillness. It reinforced allusions both to ash, with its connotations of cremation, and to the fundamental tensions between the individual and the collective in Chinese society, as the field of seeds, seemingly identical yet each unique, laid dormant.
There was also a related personal association. Ai’s father, the poet Ai Qing, was classified as an enemy of the revolution in 1957, resulting in a harsh exile in Xinjiang Province, where sunflower seeds were one of the few dietary luxuries. Among the exiles there, the sharing of seeds provided a moment of covert community solidarity. Ai has early memories of his mother hulling seeds with her teeth, proficiently preserving the kernel—the seeds still communicate such simple acts of pleasure in an increasingly complex world.
Ai’s vital practice utilizes such elements in his own difficult life as pieces of grit to give his work meaning to a wider audience. He is driven by a long-standing desire to encourage both freedom of thought and the strength to act, whether in the face of political repression and censorship or of such new threats to individual expression as materialism and even mass production. Sunflower Seeds expressed the responsibility he feels to articulate and further this struggle, and of his belief in the transformative possibilities of society.
Sunflower Seeds was extended beyond the Turbine Hall through Twitter. Booths alongside the work allowed visitors to pose questions directly to Ai via video, to which he replied on the Tate website. From these responses, it is evident that Ai feels the work’s role, and his role as artist, is to hint at universal questions concerning obligations, values, strengths, rights and materialism in society, and through these to challenge fixed power structures. Sunflower Seeds was meticulous, beautiful, sparse, suggestive, even emotional, but it was not prescriptive. It may have suggested connections, posed questions and inspired action, but the final interpretation, and the final decision about whether, and how, to act, was the viewer’s own.