Mao Evoked as Chinese Artist Fills Tate With 100 Million Seeds

Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds
A view of "The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds." The installation, comprising millions of hand-crafted porcelain seeds, is on view at Tate Modern, London through May 2. Source: Tate Britain via Bloomberg

Toddlers are going to like the new installation by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at Tate Modern.

Even at the press view, several children were already contentedly playing on it. Fans of conceptual art will be enthusiastic too, as will those who like chilling out beside the sea. Lovers of richly eye-filling spectacle will be less happy.

Ai is one of contemporary China’s most prominent artists. He was a collaborator with the architects Herzog and de Meuron on the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

This new work, “Sunflower Seeds,” is loaded with thoughts and associations. From a distance, it looks like a beach of gray shingle, or a Zen garden. If you wanted to be harsh you might compare it to a vast expense of grimy porridge spread across the vast floor of the Turbine Hall.

As its title suggests, it isn’t intended as any of these things. The work consists of 100 million little monochrome porcelain replicas of sunflower seed husks. This humble item carries strong associations for Ai. The sunflower seed is a popular Chinese snack. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, Chairman Mao Zedong was represented as the Sun with the Chinese people as sunflowers turning their faces toward him.

The Cultural Revolution holds terrible memories for Ai, 53. His father, Ai Qing (1910-1996), a celebrated poet, was exiled to a remote village and condemned to hard labor.

Later the artist studied at Beijing Film Academy, then spent 12 years living in the U.S. where he absorbed Duchamp, Surrealism and conceptual art. After he returned to China in 1993, his work became a mixture of west and east. He has the attention-grabbing chutzpah of a Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, and a fascination with the traditions of Chinese culture and art.

Painted Porcelain

In this case, he has used one of most significant materials of the old China: porcelain. Each of the ceramic sunflower shells was hand-painted and crafted by workers at a factory in the city of Jingdezhen.

It took two years to manufacture this quantity of tiny porcelain seed-pods. Altogether they weigh 150 metric tonnes. They crunch under your feet like gravel, and visitor’s footsteps form them into an undulating miniature landscape, like a desert seen from the air.

If you pick up a few, you discover that each is minutely different. The pattern of black and white stripes is always slightly varied, just as each individual human being is unique, though in a crowd, from a distance they can seem much the same.

One hundred million units is a huge number. The population of China is 1.3 billion. Individual freedom is important to Ai, who is increasingly politically outspoken.

All of these connections are interesting. In fact, the more you think about it, the better “Sunflowers” gets.

On the other hand, there’s no getting away from the fact that visually, it is a bit of a downer. For that reason, it doesn’t rank with the most successful of the Unilever Series -- Olafur Eliasson’s setting sun, for example, or Doris Salcedo’s fissure in the floor. To make the most of that vast space, visual drama and spectacle is definitely what you need.

“Sunflower Seeds” by Ai Weiwei opens today at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG. The show runs through May 2 2011. It is part of the Unilever Series, an annual commission sponsored by Unilever Plc. Information:

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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