It’s hard to imagine the scale of this work without being in a room with it. Even the numbers are hard to envisage.

Ai Weiwei 'Sunflower Seeds' 2010
Ai Wei Wei, Sunflower Seeds 2010

The cone is made up of around eight million individual hand-crafted pieces of painted porcelain, each one an unnervingly lifelike sunflower seed. Displayed like this, the sculpture is over a metre and a half high at its highest point, while its circular base has a diameter of five metres. It is simultaneously one massive whole and millions of tiny individuals.

Today, we announced that Tate has acquired this work by the outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The work can be displayed in this conical shape or in a square (or rectangular) bed of seeds ten centimetres deep, much like his Unilever Series commission from 2010. In fact this work is one tenth of the seeds that were displayed in the Turbine Hall.

When we think of China and its exports today, we’re more likely to imagine huge factories producing electrical goods or toys, but as avid watchers of the Antiques Roadshow will know, porcelain has always been one of China’s most prized exports. It, of course, has an indelible link with China – not only because porcelain originated in China, but also as we all unthinkingly refer to porcelain items as “china”. Far from the production line we might imagine when we think of something ‘Made in China’, each seed was produced in small-scale studios by artisans in the city of Jingdezhen, famed for its production of porcelain for over 1,700 years.

Sunflower seeds have strong resonances for Chinese audiences in a way that they may not for British and northern European audiences. In China (and many southern European countries) they are still a common snack eaten by everyone regardless of status – with the discarded husks sprinkling the streets. During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76), many propaganda images depicted Chairman Mao as the sun with the mass of Chinese people turning towards him, as sunflowers. Ai himself 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.

This work was acquired with assistance from Tate International Council, the Art Fund, and Stephen and Yana Peel.