AP®︎/College Art History
- Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth
- Zaha Hadid, MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome
- Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds
- Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds)
- Wangechi Mutu, Preying Mantra
- Julie Mehretu, Stadia II
- El Anatsui, Old Man’s Cloth
- El Anatsui, Untitled
- Yinka Shonibare, The Swing (After Fragonard)
- Kara Walker, Darkytown Rebellion
- Kiki Smith, Lying with the Wolf
Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds)
Essay by Megan Lorraine Debin
Ai Weiwei often uses his art to critique political and economic injustice. This can be seen in work such as his 2010 installation, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) at Tate Modern, London.
Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) consists of more than 100 million tiny, handmade porcelain sunflower seeds, originally weighing in at 150 tons. They filled the enormous Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, an industrial building-turned-contemporary art space. Sunflower seeds evokes a warm personal memory for the artist, who recalls that while he was growing up, even the poorest in China would share sunflower seeds as a treat among friends. The use of sunflower seeds as the basis of his installation was also designed to subvert popular imagery rooted in the artist’s childhood. Communist propaganda optimistically depicted leader Mao Zedong as the sun and the citizens of the People’s Republic of China as sunflowers, turning toward their chairman. Ai Weiwei reasserts the sunflower seed as a symbol of camaraderie during difficult times.
Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds), 2010 (photo: Drew Bates CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/8VxZDM
Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, 2010, one hundred million hand painted porcelain seeds (Tate Modern)
Though each of the 100 million carefully crafted individual seeds can draw the viewer's attention, once arranged together in a neat rectangle, or covering the floor of an entire room, the hyper-realistic seeds create a sense of vastness. In the Tate installation, there was a sense of precision in the arrangement of the seeds, creating visual order and uniformity. The individual seed is lost among the millions, a critique of the conformity and censorship inherent in modern China.
Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds, Tate Modern, London, 2011 (photo: Waldopepper, CC BY-NC 2.0)
Made In China
More than 1,600 artisans worked to make the individual porcelain seeds by hand in Jingdzhen, the city known as the “Porcelain Capital,” where artists have been producing pottery for nearly 2000 years. Porcelain, first produced during the Han dynasty in about 200 B.C.E. and later mastered during the Tang dynasty, is made by heating white clay (kaolin) to a temperature over 1200 degrees Celsius. The fusion of the particles within the clay during firing allowed artists to create vessels with thin but strong walls. Porcelain— a symbol of imperial culture in China—was also made for export via the Silk Road and became important to the creation of the idea of China in the West.
Mr. Ai’s use of porcelain comments on the long history of this prized material while also rejecting the common negative connotations of the modern term “Made in China.” Utilizing skilled artisans known for their exquisite craftsmanship to make objects that can only be differentiated one from another upon close inspection, alludes to the important porcelain tradition in Jingdzhen, as well as to the uniformity and diffusion of modern (cheap and fast) labor that is responsible for China’s hard-won place in the world economy. Sunflower Seeds asks us to examine how our consumption of foreign-made goods affects the lives of others across the globe.
Some of the 3000 highly skilled craftspeople from Jingdezhen hired to create and paint porcelain sunflower seeds
How we experience an artwork impacts our perception of the work. In the tradition of participatory contemporary art, Sunflower Seeds asks the public to physically interact with the art. Initially, Tate visitors were invited to walk over and lie on the seeds, though the museum, in consultation with the artist, suspended this opportunity about a week into the exhibition because of safety concerns.
Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds), 2010, Tate Modern, London, 2011 (photo: Loz Flowers CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/8Jv6Wx
Art and activism
Ai Weiwei was arrested at the Beijing Capital International Airport on April 3, 2011 during his Tate exhibition. He was detained for 81 days. The artist, along with many in the international community, asserted that his true offense was his political activism for democracy and human rights. Mr. Ai had blogged for four years—investigating cover-ups and corruption in the government’s handling of a devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan and the country’s hosting of the Olympics. Ai Weiwei's blog was shut down in 2009. Since then, he has turned to Twitter and Instagram. During his detention, the international community, including major US art institutions, rallied for his release. Officials eventually released him, charging Ai Weiwei with tax evasion, but his passport was withheld, preventing him from leaving the country for four years. It was returned in 2015.
Ai Weiwei’s continues to address issues of human rights in his work. The 2015 exhibit @Large, installed on Alcatraz, the former island prison in the San Francisco Bay, comments on surveillance, freedom, and political prisoners by mixing fine and traditional arts with pop culture materials including silk dragon kites and Lego portraits (above).
Ai Weiwei, @Large, Trace, Logos, Alcatraz, 2015 (photo: Ian Abbott, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/pSzMWK
Essay by Megan Lorraine Debin
You can follow Ai Weiwei on Instagram and Twitter @aiww
[Sunflower Seeds exhibition at the Tate](http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate- modern/exhibition/unilever-series-ai-weiwei-sunflower-seeds)
Want to join the conversation?
- What was the safety concern on lying on the sunflower seeds?(7 votes)
- Because the Tate had so many visitors who were allowed to walk directly on the seeds, porcelain dust had gathered and filled the air. Porcelain dust is very harmful for the lungs and can even cause lung cancer. Because of this they had to stop visitors from walking directly on and instead let them walk around them.(16 votes)
- are sunflower is good to eat sunflower(3 votes)
- The sunflower seeds in this piece of art are inedible.(1 vote)
- The link to I Weiwei from art21 is incorrect. It does lead to art 21, but links to another show.(1 vote)
- This will be fixed soon. Thanks for the head's up.(1 vote)
- What sort of materials other than porcelain were used in the production of these seeds? What paints were used is primarily my question (safe to touch and hold?)?(1 vote)
- All the websites I've currently looked at have all said just what Olivia has said. If you'd like more detail I'd have to guess calligraphy ink. I watched a documentary on the process and from the looks of it, that's what it is. Now calligraphy ink can be toxic depending on the type and quality but Im almost positive that the ink used on the sunflower seeds is safe to touch. Ai Wei Wei even said during one of his visits to his exhibit that visitors even tried putting the seeds into their mouths, so yes, it must have been safe. Also mining, machines, and process is all shown is this YouTube documentary.
- do you wash them after you walk on them
,and porcelain dust is harmful to the lungs if keep walking on them it fills the air and could kill someone(0 votes)
- no, it would take an immense amount of water to wash each of the one hundred million seeds. also, the article already said that porcelain dust was harmful and they listed the solution.(0 votes)