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In a recently closed exhibit, a famous Chinese artist whose works typically advocate individual freedom and the problems with modernity, displayed an unusual sea of sunflower seeds. The hand-made seeds were placed in Turbine Hall from October 2010 to May 2011 by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) at the Tate Modern art museum in London, England.
At the opening, patrons of the modern art hall could walk and play among them.
In much the way that individual franchises make up the many consumption points of a worldwide brand, each sunflower seed is made into a unified sea of pebbles. When taken as a whole, each seed looks standardized and interchangeable. But they aren’t.
Photographer Dominic Alves explains the seed exhibit:
The work is made up of 100 million porcelain ceramic sunflower seeds, with the characteristic dark stripes created by individually hand painting a glaze by skilled craft workers in workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen / 景德镇, a region with a very long history of production of quality pottery.
The seeds are grey and white, but the combination of skylight and artificial lighting creates purple and green hues in the shadows.
Visitors could originally walk upon the "field of seeds", but health concerns over the small quantities of airborne ceramic / vitreous dust that might be generated by friction between the seeds resulted in the work being fenced off with a knee high wire rope, and continuous guarding.
...Ai Weiwei ("Ai" is the family name) needles away at the conflict that arises between China's ferocious economic freedoms and growth, and the restrictions resulting from an authoritarian single party state. He has both been the artistic consultant on the Beijing National (Olympic) Stadium and also endured house arrest and international travel restrictions. On one occasion he was so badly assaulted by the police that he almost died, requiring surgery to attend to internal bleeding from a head injury.
The New Yorker observes that in designing this, Ai has been concerned of late with individuals who are chipped or just disappear.
As a finished product, this piece has some obvious resonance to Ai’s other obsessions these days. Ai has been intensely focused on Twitter, sending his rants and declarations and appeals to thirty-six thousand Chinese readers who are—Who are they, actually? And where are they? Beijing? The hinterlands? Who knows? Whoever they are, they have never met in person but are united by a belief in an idea strong enough to keep them reading, despite the fact that Twitter is banned and can only be accessed through some technical gymnastics.
Ai is also obsessed with other sets of numbers: the more than five thousand children who died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008—in part because of faulty school construction—as well as the thirty to forty-five million people who died during the famine following the Great Leap Forward. Never have sunflower seeds been this political. For years, Ai produced single objects that demanded attention—sometimes more plaintively than some critics would have liked. But for this piece, his most high-profile yet, he subverted his own habits and made a hundred million objects that were as seemingly, deceptively interchangeable as the names on his list of earthquake victims.