Magazine article Art Monthly

AI Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds

Magazine article Art Monthly

AI Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds

Article excerpt

Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds

Tate Modern London 12 October to 2 May

When Chairman Mao initiated the Hundred Flowers Campaign calling for competing political philosophies to be aired, he presumed the socialist model would win out and bind the country more closely to communism. When responses proved to be critical of Mao and the Communist Party, however, he dissolved the campaign and waged the Anti-Rightist Movement, which saw around half a million intellectuals purged from the party and exiled to labour camps. This was in 1957, the year that Ai Weiwei was born, and these programmes led to Ai growing up in a labour camp in the remote Xinjiang region when his poet father was politically blacklisted as a rightist intellectual.

Ai has upscaled Mao's proposal a million-fold in Sunflower Seeds, 2010, delivering 100 million porcelain seeds that, like Mao's metaphorical flowers, will never bloom. Does this work represent a rich grain store--such seeds were one of the few abundant food sources during Ai's youth--or a fossil beach where all potential is petrified? And which of the two versions of this work should we consider? The one you walk across with tactile pleasure, as experienced over its first couple of days? Or the post-health-and-safety version, where it is viewed from behind a security barrier? This apparently straightforward work is surprisingly difficult to read when first encountered.

The porcelain seeds were produced using traditional methods by skilled workers in Jingdezhen, where porcelain of the highest quality has been produced since the Han Dynasty two millennia ago (during the 1960s and 70s, it also produced many porcelain versions of the familiar Mao Badges, the designs of which often featured the common Cultural Revolution motif of sunflowers turning their heads to face Mao). Ai is fascinated by craft techniques and has previously reworked antique objects through either traditional or destructive means, carefully remodelling antique tables while smashing Han Dynasty pots. The point is this: although Sunflower Seeds required the continuous labour of hundreds of workers over several years, this is not another example of the exploitation of China's population of unskilled migrant workers (who number more than twice the quantity of seeds here). Yes, the work makes reference to China's role as globalisation's manufacturer of useless goods, a role which creates situations where, say, half a million Foxconn workers live within the walled compound of a single city-factory. But the Tate commission is not a product of this; Sunflower Seeds has helped to support traditional craft production in numerous small-scale, village-led workshops.

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While the prospect of working in a small group and repeating the same few actions day after day may seem like the worst kind of alienated work to many privileged westerners--and, ironically, committed Marxists--it is unlikely that the artist perceives such production in the same way. It is helpful to know that Ai is married to the artist Lu Qing (she appears in one of Ai's first photographic works, dangerously raising her skirt in the heavily policed Tiananmen Square) and her practice has for years followed a single working method: at the start of the year she buys a long roll of fine silk and then slowly and meticulously paints small squares across its surface until the year is through and she starts all over again. …

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