Sunflower Seeds: Ai Weiwei at the Tate Modern, London

January 18, 2011
by Tamara E. Schechter

It’s a long way away, to be sure, but I was in London over the holidays and thought this sculpture was exceptional and well worth a mention. Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds is the latest work to be installed in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern as part of Tate’s Unilever Series, which supports the creation of a contemporary installation at the museum each year. The Series has been in place since Tate opened in 2000, and the yearly rotation of monumental site-specific work is yet another way that Tate remains relevant, participating in and often controlling the conversation surrounding up-to-the-minute art conceptualization. Our own MoMA in NYC has recently followed suit, transforming its previously stark and unchanging Atrium space into such a rotating gallery:

Rachel Whiteread, ”Embankment.” Turbine Hall, The Tate Modern, Bankside, London. 13 November 2005. Photographer: Fin Fahey.

First, a bit about the space: Tate Modern is housed in a former power plant built in 1947, and the museum has preserved the building’s innately rough, industrial atmosphere in its redesign. Most notably, the Turbine Hall (where electric generators were kept in the old plant) was left intact by architects Herzog & de Meuron. The Hall is five stories high and runs the length of the building; it is a huge space and ideal for the presentation of interactive large-scale works. One such example is Rachel Whiteread’s

EMBANKMENT, which I saw when I was last in London, in 2006. The sculpture consisted of plaster casts of thousands of cartons piled all over the Hall, creating mazes for the visitor to navigate. Other works are not meant merely to fill the Hall but to transform it; often the vastness and emptiness of the space itself becomes part of the piece, as with Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth of 2007–8, in which the artist created cracks in the floor of the Hall for visitors to walk along, contemplate, or dodge.


Sunflower Seeds belongs to this latter category, as Ai Weiwei makes use of the space to capitalize on the notion of presence/absence. This is just one of several ostensible contradictions that are explored and brought together in the work; others include individual vs. mass production, found objects vs. handicrafts, and part vs. whole.

The work is meant to be somewhat deceptive as it navigates its own duality; as such it is identified and experienced in stages: Upon entering the Hall the viewer is confronted with a vast, monochrome expanse of what appears to be gravel. Closer inspection reveals the pebbly carpet to be composed not of sand or rocks but of sunflower seeds, about 100 million of them. And when one delves even further – reading the wall text, watching the accompanying film on the piece – one discovers that these are not actual sunflower seeds, but porcelain sculptures which have been hand-crafted and painted by skilled artisans. Thus, the seeds are manmade, yet they mimic nature in that no two are exactly alike. As well, a sculpture which appeared initially to have been composed of found or readymade objects is revealed to be not merely conceptualized and assembled but also wholly constructed of raw materials.

Ai Weiwei, “Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds),” 2008, Porcelain, size varies with installation
First exhibited at the Tate Modern art gallery in London, October 2010 – May 2011

The significance of the subject is twofold: sunflower seeds are an overt reference to Mao Zedong, whose Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s was publicized by propagandistic posters that depicted Chairman Mao as the sun and all of China as sunflowers bent toward him. At the same time, sunflower seeds were and are a popular snack in China, shared on the street between friends; happy memories for the artist in contrast with those of the dark days of Mao’s rule. The medium, too, is significant; porcelain is one of China’s most prized exports, and the sculptures were actually created in small workshops in the city of Jingdezhen, well known as a onetime center for the production and trade of imperial porcelain.

The audience’s level of interaction with the sculpture has changed since its installation. Originally, viewers were meant to walk across the piece, handling the seeds, crunching them underfoot, testing their robustness and/or fragility. However, the dust generated from this contact was deemed harmful to visitors, and they are now separated from the work by rope stanchions and permitted to contemplate it only from afar. I experienced the work this way, and while it was frustrating not to be able to get any closer, the separation also forces the viewer to observe the sculpture as a single, collective unit: over 100 million seeds, crafted by 1,600 artisans over two years, with a combined weight of 150 tons. The enforced distance imbues the work with a different kind of power, even if this wasn’t part of the artist’s original vision for the sculpture.

According to the wall text, one hundred million is also five times the population of Beijing, and represents nearly a quarter of China’s internet users. I found it most interesting to consider the sculpture in this way: to identify each seed as a unit of measurement, a placeholder, or more significantly, as a stand-in for an individual. As such the piece can also be considered commemorative, as we contemplate the relative frailty of each unit in contrast with the vastness and strength of the unified whole. To be sure, the sculpture is not a traditional “memorial,” but the notion of an object as a substitute for an absent individual, whether that individual is to be memorialized, counted, or just made present in some way, applies here. Last week the exhibition Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire opened at the Grey Art Gallery; we might perceive such an exhibition as a more traditional memorializing statement (and the show is excellent; I highly recommend), but does Sunflower Seeds not achieve a similar commemorative effect, in some way? I believe it does.

I thought Sunflower Seeds was powerful, significant, and really impressive. It is on view at Tate Modern through May 11, 2011; entry is free, and this is well worth the stop if anyone finds him/herself in London.

Suggested Reading:

For more information on the piece, videos, and interview with the artist, click here:

And for more general information on Tate Modern’s Unilever Series and past installations, click here:

Tamara E. Schechter is a Ph.D. Candidate at Institute of Fine Arts, NYU and Member of Grey Art Gallery Student Friends Committee.


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