The Most Powerful Person in the Art World: Ai Weiwei’s ‘Sunflower Seeds’

Tate Gallery has bought ‘part’ of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Sunflower Seeds’ (it bought 8 million seeds for an undisclosed amount).

Ai Weiwei
is one of my favorite contemporary artists, not only for his witty metaphors; but also for his persistent activism against one of the most oppressive regimes on the planet: that of his country, China. His political criticism through his art quickly transcended the borders of his country and stirred international debate about human rights abuse systematically practiced by the Chinese regime against its people. In a way, he has become the ‘spokesperson’ of the oppressed, as the fine line between his art and his activism slowly disappeared, as he himself puts it: “Everything is art. Everything is politics. You can call it art or non-art, I don’t care.”

In 2011, Ai Weiwei topped the ArtReview ‘Power 100’ List (as the most powerful person in the art world), and Time magazine regarded him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. This artist captured everyone’s attention last year when he was detained for almost three months, before being released under numerous restrictions on his freedom of expression following much international pressure and a wave of solidarity campaigns. When detained, his art installation ‘Sunflower Seeds’ was already exhibited at Tate Gallery in London.

The artwork, composed of 100 million porcelain sunflower seed replicas (weighing 10 tonnes) has something very special about it: each seed is unique because the seeds were handcrafted individually. Spread all over the floor of Tate’s Turbine Gallery, people were invited to walk, sit, or lay down on this ‘field of seeds’ (later this was not allowed due to potential health issues relating to the ceramic dust). Politically, the message is twofold:
First: A criticism of the labor conditions in China, which abolished the ‘individuality’ and the ‘individual creativity’ of workers, treating them as one ‘mass’. The 100 million seeds look like one homogenous mass, but when examined closely, each is unique and different, just like the workers that produced them. This, when generalized, applies to the society at large.
Second: A reminder of the Cultural Revolution propaganda in China, which spread images of Mao presented as the sun and the Chinese people around like sunflowers following him.

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