Tate Modern has installed a 10-tonne sculpture by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, containing approximately eight million individually hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds. On loan from the artist, Sunflower Seeds is shown as part of the free displays on Level 3 of the gallery, in which the legacies of and reactions to Surrealism are explored.
Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds is made up of what appear to be millions of seed husks. Although they look realistic, each unique seed has been intricately made from porcelain and painted by hand. The 10 cubic metres of seeds are presented as a sculpture with a conical form, 5 metres in diameter and over 1.5 metres high, which visitors can walk around to view from all sides. This work consists of just under one tenth of the seeds from Ai Weiwei’s commission for The Unilever Series, shown in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall from 12 October 2010 to 2 May 2011. Over 2.5 million visitors came to the gallery during its display, almost 23,000 of whom were inspired to leave video messages for the artist on Tate’s website.
For the artist, sunflower seeds – a common street snack – carry associations with China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76), when propaganda images depicted Chairman Mao as the sun with the mass of people as sunflowers turning towards him. Yet Ai remembers the sharing of sunflower seeds as a gesture of human compassion, an opportunity for pleasure, friendship and kindness during a time of extreme poverty and uncertainty. There are also contemporary resonances in the work, with its combination of mass production and traditional craftsmanship inviting us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geopolitics of cultural and economic exchange.
Ai Weiwei (born 1957, Beijing) is one of the most widely known and outspoken Chinese artists working today, renowned for his social and performance-based interventions, his object-based artworks and his writings. He uses metaphor, humour and political irony in his work to convey his message about social responsibility and the role of individuals. On 3 April 2011 Ai was arrested by the Chinese authorities. The artist is currently being detained without charge and has not been given access to a lawyer. Museums around the world have launched an online petition expressing concern for Ai’s freedom and calling for his release. This collective action aims to promote Ai Weiwei’s liberty and the principle of free creative expression.
Chris Dercon, Director, Tate Modern said: ‘Tate remains deeply concerned about Ai Weiwei’s detention. Recent events have made Sunflower Seeds an ever-more poignant commentary on the importance of the individual in society. At a time when Ai cannot speak freely for himself, it is important that his message continues to be heard through his art.’
Notes to Editor
Sunflower Seeds sculpture by Ai Weiwei
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