Monday, October 18, 2010

Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei at Tate Modern, London

Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei brought over 100,000,000 sunflower seeds to Tate Modern in London. In the past, Mr. Ai has produced installations, photographs, furniture, paintings, books, and films. He served as artistic consultant on the Beijing's Olympic Stadium - the Bird Nest.  After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he took on exposing construction problems of Sichuan schools and the follow up mal-treatments towards anyone raised issues by Chinese government.  He was also in the center of a protest by artists whose studios were seized by local government and developers without due process and he suffered a major injury and had to had a surgery performed on him in Germany.

Like many contemporary Chinese artists, Ai concentrated his energy on the trauma of the political upheavals in last several decades in China and for better or for worse, they seem obsessed with the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath.  Ai is more critical than most, when many seem hold a nostalgic view of Mao's era. His activists efforts, if distracted him from art making, seemed have deepened his thinking. His artwork has always been large scaled and now it gets even bigger. The 100 million tiny sculptures of sunflower seeds were made out of porcelain and hand-painted by skilled artisans in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. According to Ai that he had painted three and were rejected because they were too "ugly".

Independent report that "The tiny works of art, each hand-painted in porcelain and different from all the others, are collectively called Sunflower Seeds, which is what they have been made to look like. For Ai, their maker – or, at least, the man who had them made – these have a specific significance. During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao, like Louis XIV before him, had himself depicted as the sun, the faces of his 900 million sunflower people turned inexorably to his heliotropic face. At the same time, recalls Ai in an accompanying film, sunflower seeds were the one foodstuff you could be sure of finding during the frequent hungers of Mao’s reign, a token not just of survival but of sociability.

On a political level, the seeds were a symbol of repression; on a human one, they offered a rare opportunity for kindness, the sharing of a tiny plenty. In Ai's art – an art heartily disliked by the current government of the People's Republic of China, whose police have censored his work and arrested and beaten Ai himself – these two opposing sunflowers resolve into one. Sunflower Seeds is both almost pervertedly grand – 150 tons of handcrafted ceramics, covering 1,000 square metres of Tate Modern's floor to a depth of 10cm – and irreducibly simple. Each seed offers a kind of hope – of food, of kindness – and yet each is like a minute (and inedible) stone monument, so that the work is at once both lively and deathly. In those contradictions of massive numbers and individuality, of humility and grandeur, happiness and pain, Sunflower Seeds is like China itself."

Visitors are invited to walk across the surface of the work. It's a sensory and immersive installation, which visitors can touch, walk on and listen to as the seeds shift beneath their feet.  But due to health concern over ceramic dust, visitors are not allowed to walk on these sunflower seeds any more, unfortunately.

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