Tate has acquired Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds 2010, a work made up of ten tonnes of porcelain sunflower seed husks, approximately eight million in number, each intricately hand-crafted by skilled artisans. The work has been purchased with assistance from Tate International Council, the Art Fund, and Stephen and Yana Peel. It comprises just under one tenth of the seeds from Ai Weiwei’s commission for The Unilever Series, shown in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall from October 2010 to May 2011.
The ten cubic metres of seeds can be arranged as a sculpture in a conical form, five metres in diameter and over one-and-a-half metres high. It was recently on display in this configuration at Tate Modern from June 2011 to February 2012. The work may also be presented as a square or rectangular bed to a depth of ten centimetres.
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 he also 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.
Sunflower Seeds is one of a number of works that Ai has made using porcelain, one of China’s most prized exports. These have included replicas of vases in the style of various dynasties, dresses, pillars and watermelons. Like those previous works, the sunflower seeds have all been produced in the city of Jingdezhen, which is famed for its production of Imperial porcelain.
Ai Weiwei was born in 1957 in Beijing, China, where he lives and works. He is one of the most widely known and outspoken Chinese artists working today. Known for his social or performance-based interventions as well as object-based artworks, he employs metaphorical references, humour and political irony in his work.
Tate Publishing’s book Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds, originally published to accompany Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds installation in the Turbine Hall, will be made available from April 2012 as an e-book. Visit shop.tate.org.uk.