Ai Weiwei Uniliver Series 2010

Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds challenges our first impressions: what you see is not what you see, and what you see is not what it means. The sculptural installation is made up of what appear to be millions of sunflower seed husks, apparently identical but actually unique. Although they look realistic, each seed is made out of porcelain. And far from being industrially produced, ‘readymade’ or found objects, they have been intricately hand-crafted by hundreds of skilled artisans. Poured into the interior of the Turbine Hall’s vast industrial space, the seeds form a seemingly infinite landscape. The precious nature of the material, the effort of production and the narrative and personal content make this work a powerful commentary on the human condition.

One of China’s leading conceptual artists, Ai is known for his social or performance-based interventions as well as object-based artworks. Citing Marcel Duchamp, he refers to himself as a ‘readymade’, merging his life and art in order to advocate both the freedoms and responsibilities of individuals. ‘From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society’, he has said. ‘Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.’ As material for his art, he draws upon the society and politics of contemporary China as well as cultural artefacts such as ancient Neolithic vases and traditional Chinese furniture, whose function and perceived value he challenges and subverts.

Sunflower Seeds is the latest 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, oil spills 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. Each ceramic seed was individually hand-sculpted and hand-painted by specialists working in small-scale workshops. This combination of mass production and traditional craftsmanship invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geopolitics of cultural and economic exchange today.

For Ai, sunflower seeds – a common street snack shared by friends – carry personal associations with Mao Zedong’s brutal Cultural Revolution (1966–76). While individuals were stripped of personal freedom, propaganda images depicted Chairman Mao as the sun and the mass of people as sunflowers turning towards him. Yet Ai remembers the sharing of sunflower seeds as a gesture of human compassion, providing a space for pleasure, friendship and kindness during a time of extreme poverty, repression and uncertainty.

Sunflower Seeds is a vast sculpture that can be gazed upon from the Turbine Hall bridge, or viewed at close range. Each piece is a part of the whole, a poignant commentary on the relationship between the individual and the masses. There are over one hundred million seeds, five times the number of Beijing’s population and nearly a quarter of China’s internet users. The work seems to pose numerous questions. What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future? 

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957 in Beijing, China, where he lives and works.