Ai Weiwei, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds), 2010, Tate Modern, London.
With the ever-rising political conflict between society and the government figures, the consequences become even more complex. From the restriction of basic human rights, hegemony and commodification more and more people are getting affected by these problems. Arguably, the best example of these problems would be China. The political climate in the country is intense. The country's ideology consisting of socialistic values, restriction of freedom of speech and expression of individuality which can soon lead to a nationwide meltdown. Chinese individual's relationship with the government, society and overall tradition is at stake. Being restrained to consumeristic and hegemonic society people have no way to express themselves and succumb to the monotone life that is planned for them. In addition, culture, especially art, is highly restricted and in order to be shown in public must be approved by the government. With these rules implemented in society, it is quite difficult to protest the system. However, the man abiding these rules is Ai Weiwei. By fearlessly expressing his importance of individuality and freedom of speech with his contemporary pieces he challenges the hegemonical norm and provokes the stagnant society of modern China. In this essay, I will explain and analyze the thought-provoking piece called 'Sunflower Seeds' and how it correlates with China's hegemonic society and its restrictions on individuality. In addition, I will formally and semiotically analyze the contemporary side of the installation and portray the importance of the material that was used and the historical symbolism that is hidden behind the piece.
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Ai Weiwei is known to be the face of the human rights movement and a symbol of nonconformity against the absolutist regime. The artist way of correlating art and events of everyday life has cast multiple scandalous and often politically charged installations that help to portray what issues nowadays China is facing. This is the reason for the installation 'Sunflower Seeds' has connections dating way back to the Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1957. It was initiated by the nation's leader Mao in hopes for communist ideas to be implemented on society. However, those who dared to object to these political beliefs were sent to labour camps. (Barrett, 2011, pp. 24-25) This led to the death of half a million intellectuals who amongst them were highly educated people, artist and poets who could have tried to stop the implantation of socialistic ideas to the masses. One of them being Ai's father who happened to be a famous poet at the time. The artist also has been a dissident of his country which is why there is a strong relation to the contemporary piece and China's past. With it being said, the artist upscaled Mao's proposal a million-fold in Sunflower Seeds by, delivering 125 million porcelain seeds that, like Mao's metaphorical flowers, will never bloom. (Barrett, 2011, pp. 24-25) In addition, for the artist, the sunflower seeds are closely and personally related to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). During the time people were stripped down from their right to religion, press, and overall expression of individuality. (Etherington, R. 2010) Not to mention the inhumane torture methods and even death penalties for disobeying the law and flooded with images containing propaganda with depictions of Chairman Mao compared to the sun and the masses of people as sunflowers turning towards him. (West, A. (2011). In order for sunflowers to grow, they need to face the sun. Thus, this comparison implies the dependency and predominance over the dictatorship of China's leader and how people were incarcerated only for economic growth rather than individual prosperity. On the other hand, in times of repression, poverty and exile is the act of sharing sunflower seeds as a way of showing kindness, compassion and empathy. (Etherington, R. 2010)''The seeds were the only treasure they had'. From train journeys to weddings and other celebrations you would always encounter sunflower seeds. (Ai, 2010, p. 64) They were the key element of conversation and was strongly tied to the nature of the Chinese. It was seen as a peace offering that built connections and intimacy. (Ai, 2010, p.64).'Sunflower seeds' have a copious amount of symbolistic value that can be related to both positive and negative aspects of China's history concerning individualism.
everydaylife.style, (2019), Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds @ Tate Modern
Furthermore, the artists intent was to be able to exhibit the installation to the Western audience in a way to inform about the dehumanizing acts that China is trying to conceal away from the outside world. Ironically, during this exhibition, he was arrested in Beijing and detained for 81 days which, emphasizes the issues of China even more. (Weiwei, 2018) The piece 'Sunflower Seeds' were exhibited within the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in 2010. The artist had intended two ways for the sculpture to be portrayed. In the first option, Ai chose to arrange the seeds in a continuous rectangular shape to a depth of ten centimetres. This way it perfectly aligned to the dimensions of the galleries' display area and emphasized how enormous the piece was. Alternatively, in case of a different approach, it was intended for the work to be presented as a conical sculptural form, approximately five meters in diameter. This way at first the viewer sees a grey mass and upon further inspection can differentiate that they are individual pieces of porcelain seeds. Which implies that the main idea of the piece represents how China's government sees the masses as mere commodities rather than individuals with different aspirations. The installation consisted of 125 million individually handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. The porcelain seeds were made by using traditional Chinese methods by local workers in Jingdezhen, a region of China in the south of Beijing. The city throughout the ages is well known to have the best quality of porcelain. (Barrett, 2011, pp. 24-25) By taking the type of porcelain that was only accessible to the rich, it can be interpreted that the artist is mocking to China's current socialistic society and its ideals. By relating Chinese individuals to the seeds made of the highest quality of porcelain every person has high potential value and regarded as an individual. What is more, the sunflower seeds were produced by local craftspeople in their own personal home setting rather than in a huge and mechanized factory. The artist main idea for the sunflowers to be handcrafted individually than having them be factory produced is a statement of protest to the portrayal of his homeland as the 'Factory of the world', driven by the surge of mass production of homogenous commodities and capitalist modernity. (Hancox, S. 2019). Thus, portraying how the government's authorities should be respectful of people's time and effort in keeping traditions alive and not succumbing into a mechanized workplace.
The contemporary piece 'Sunflower seeds' covers a variety of problems that his home country is facing. The Chinese government has been often depicted as socialist and having restrictions in copious areas, especially human rights. (Weiwei, Ai. , (2012) From containment to free access to the press, internet, religion and the one-child policy China has exponentially chained the masses to their ideology. Which means people are taken captive to communistic ideals and not seen as individuals and rather as modern slaves chained to the hegemonic society with no free will. The artist has a huge interest in how western authorities are structured and how it deals with exploitation. The installation itself is dependent upon the different economies that extend across national boundaries and the fame and reputation the museum that holds on both contemporary and historical forms of western capitalism. Thus, the nature of this work invites us to consider the relevant questions about individuality and the significance of working together in unity to achieve a certain goal. From the western audience's point of view, they can experience the issues throughout interacting with the installation. By making the whole piece into a sensory and immersive installation. Visitors can interact with the art piece by walking, running or simply laying on the seeds. (Etherington, R. 2010) By experiencing the piece up and close the audience can personally contemplate about the meaning of individuality and how it treated in different parts of the world. Also, when stepping on the porcelain seeds, the friction between them produces a rough sound which creates a mental image of the suburbs and ancient China's villages. This way the audience can be more fully involved in the installation while also contemplating what it means to be a person living in modern china. (Hancox, S. 2019). This way the artist engages the audience to ponder their ethical imperative to act, speak or protest on behalf of the Chinese citizen.
The idea of over-exaggeration of an everyday item can be paralleled with one of the most famous faces in the pop art scene – Andy Warhol. One of the examples can be of one hundred pieces of cans portrayed in the piece 'Campbell Soup Cans'. Just like Ai they both take ordinary items and overproduce their amount and implement them in their work in seek of criticizing the way society is driven by consumerism and hegemonical norms that enslave people into a never-ending work cycle. (Stevens, M. 2012). Even though they produced work in different periods both of them had the same underlying idea. Both Warhol and Ai take power from controversial roles that artist pursue in modern society by taking an item and overemphasizing the amount they expose the dark side of their country problems. (Beetham D, 2015) Having said that, the piece can be seen for the western audiences to relate to Ai and try to understand the flaws of the Chinese government and examine his treatment as a political dissident in China. (Hancox, S. 2019) Hence, the structure that enables the assembly of the Sunflower Seeds also aids the hegemony of global capitalism and the trans nationalization of production. Ai's idea for the installation was not to critique Mao's era, but rather as a replication of similar actions taken by the current government, which is based on buoyancy, high investment, and low-cost labour with permanent damage to the environment. (Bo, 2012, Vol.11(2), pp.117-133) Which is why the contemporary piece 'Sunflower Seeds' is got such an effective response from the western society. The piece confirmed its role as a bridge between cultures and informed the masses about the issues modern china's individuals are facing. Thus, implying that informing the masses outside the eastern world can make a change.
To conclude, Ai Weiwei's contemporary installation 'Sunflower Seeds' is a vocal point of the problems Chinese individuals are facing. Being incarcerated in the socialistic ideology they are stripped down from their traits and are treated as mere commodities. Having to live in this type of hegemonic society can cause a downfall in China's reputation between other nations worldwide. Meaning, the economic and social impact would decrease as well. As the artist once have said: "From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society. Your acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be." (Tate, 2012). Which is the main idea of what the installation portrays. Individuality is the key part of existence and by taking away these basic human rights many people can succumb into despair. Therefore. having the power to come together as millions of sunflower seeds in unity to solve one problem is the core message of this installation. By exhibiting this piece Ai transcends the current problem globally and addresses it to international masses. Even though, he risked his life and globally tracked by the Chinese official's he still fights against his home countries' socialistic regime in order to make a change in the hegemonic, consumeristic society people are living.
Ai, W., Bingham, J. and Tate Modern (Gallery, 2010). Ai Weiwei : sunflower seeds. London: Tate. Websites:
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Tate (2012). The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds: Artist's quotes (Chinese) | Tate. [online] Tate. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/unileverseries/unilever-series-ai-weiwei-sunflower-seeds/unilever-4 [Accessed 3 Dec. 2019].
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West, A. (2011). Tate à Tate. [online] Stepping off the Treadmill. Available at: https://alewis.net/2011/09/27/tate-a-tate/ [Accessed 3 Dec. 2019].
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3. Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds. Barrett, David; Barrett, David (correspondence author) Art Monthly, February 2011, Issue 343, pp.24-25
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