Seeds of Change?

A new exhibit by a well-known Chinese artist and social activist opens in London.

2011.01.03
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aiweiweitate305.jpg Sunflower Seeds on display at the Tate Modern in London.
Tate Photography

An exhibition by a prominent Chinese artist of 100 million handcrafted porcelain sunflower seeds at London's Tate Gallery drew a large and international crowd during the winter holiday season.

Some were awed by the sheer scale of the project by Chinese artist and social critic Ai Weiwei, which harks back to the use of sunflowers in Mao era propaganda art.

"They painted every single one of them by hand," said a small girl viewing the seeds from a floor above to her parents, in apparent awe.

"One inevitably thinks of the famous line from Blake about a world on a grain of sand," wrote Twitter user dadwhowrites. "Mind boggles at how each seed is handmade."

Others seemed disappointed at a decision by the gallery not to allow visitors to walk on the vast exhibit, although they can still walk along the edge.

"Beautiful. But really want to plunge hands into them, sad that you can't," wrote Twitter user clairey_ross, responding to a call from Ai, a devoted microblogger himself, for feedback via the service.

"Looks like distant lavender fields. Shame we can't get in them," tweeted user publishingcynic.

Since an October decision by the gallery, a trail of anonymous footprints running along one side is the only evidence that the project was once intended as anything but an immaculately raked Zen garden.

"Although porcelain is very robust, we have been advised that the interaction of visitors with the sculpture can cause dust which could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time," the Tate Modern said in a statement on its website.

Propaganda reference

Viewed close up, the sunflower seeds appear as individually crafted works of ordinary Chinese people, who crack open and spit the shells on countless train journeys in their tens of millions at the Lunar New Year holiday.

Ai said the work was a specific reference to the cultural and political propaganda of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

"Whenever you had Chairman Mao, you had sunflower seeds, because Chairman Mao was the sun," Ai explains in a film that accompanies the exhibit, which shows thousands of workers from the porcelain town of Jingdezhen, painstakingly firing, washing and painting the seeds.

In the film, Ai, who helped design the "Bird's Nest" stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is shown presiding over the work in China's eastern province of Jiangxi, not unlike a benevolent chairman himself.

At first glance, the exhibit recalls a project of Ai's in digital, online sound: "Nian," in which anonymous netizens each read out one of the names of more than 5,000 schoolchildren killed in the devastating Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008.

In that project, Ai appears to move the hearer from the anonymous towards the individual.

He still sends out reminders on Twitter whenever one of the children who died in Sichuan's collapsed school buildings would have had a birthday.

In spite of his prominence, Ai's social activism recently earned him a ban on overseas travel by the Chinese authorities.

Ai said last month he was prevented from leaving the country ahead of the Nobel prize award ceremony in Oslo, as Beijing clamped down in the wake of the award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo.

Ai said he was taken away by police after clearing immigration controls on his way to South Korea.

"This country treats the rule of law and the rights of its citizens as a performance," he said at the time.

"Sunflower Seeds," part of the Unilever series at London's Tate Modern gallery, runs until May 2, 2011.

Reported by Luisetta Mudie.

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