PATRIOT MONTH #6: Sunflower Seeds, by Ai Weiwei (2008)

Type of Media: Art Installation

Ai Weiwei holds a curious position. On the one hand he is China’s most internationally famous artist and activist, respected throughout the world for his visual art and his work in identifying the victims of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. On the other he is a vocal critic of the Chinese government, which means despite his status he has been denounced by state media, beaten by police, and detained with no reason given. Weiwei is one of China’s premier cultural ambassadors and an active citizen, and yet the Chinese government vigorously tries to silence him. His love of the Chinese people and frustration with the government coalesce in the massive art installation, Sunflower Seeds.

Sunflower Seeds is simple to describe. It consists of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, evenly spread across a floor. Though each sunflower seed is roughly the size of a fingertip, collectively the entire exhibit weighs 150 tons and takes up 1,000 square meters. From afar Sunflower Seeds just looks like a sea of speckled grey, smooth and uniform like fresh snow, with each individual piece indistinguishable from the whole. It represents Weiwei’s view of China, expressed through the lense of mass-production

According to Weiwei, he chose sunflower seeds because they were an often-used symbol for the people of China in old Communist propaganda, brought to life by the sun of Chairman Mao Zedong. They were also a popular snack where Weiwei grew up, cheap enough so that even extremely poor families could enjoy them. To him they represent optimism, the idea that even in hard time life gives you something to savor.

It would be easy to read Sunflower Seeds to represent false optimism. Inorganic optimism, created in a factory with molds and conveyer belts and then sold by the pound. However, I’m not so sure. The seeds were manufactured over a period of two years, but they weren’t made in a factory the way most people traditionally imagine. They were made by a team of 1600 artisans in Jingdezhen, a town known for its porcelain wares, using an intricate firing process, and then painted by hand. Too much craftsmanship went into those seeds for them to mean something shallow and fake. I think instead Sunflower Seeds shows how the people of China create their own optimism with painstaking work and mastery.

That said, there’s another less hopeful layer to Sunflower Seeds: the uniformity. Yes, each seed is the result of labor and talent, branding small imperfections that make them unique, but step back a bit and they all look the same. When you put them together they bleed into each other, each seed swallowed by the collective. Weiwei intended for Sunflower Seeds to show not just the optimism of the Chinese people, but also the oppression of the government. Additionally, the exhibit itself is a health hazard. Walking around on the seeds releases dust that can be damaging to people’s lungs, bringing to mind stories of Chinese products recalled because they were made with unsafe materials. While the patrons seeing Sunflower Seeds are probably in minimal danger, the workers making it likely suffered some adverse health effects because of their jobs.

Unfortunately Sunflower Seeds is no longer exhibiting, so it’s impossible to appreciate the vastness of it in person. However, if you think Sunflower Seeds is interesting, you can check out a digital exhibit Weiwei made with Olafur Eliasson called Moon.