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Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern (photo by Dean Nicholas/Londonist)

Ai Weiwei, internationally famed artist and chief provocateur of the Chinese art world, opened his London Turbine Hall installation today, the eleventh, and first for an Asian artist, in the Tate’s Unilever series of exhibitions.

The installation forms a gesture both classic for the artist and yet totally unexpected: a carpet of sunflower seeds now covers over 1,000 of the Turbine Hall’s 3,400 square meters of floorspace, in total over 150 tons. Photos from afar show an unmeasurable expanse of gray, a rectangular infinity that calls to mind Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s candy fields: part minimalist, part maximalist. The seed carpet is visually stunning, but beyond its striking appearance, the installation has a deep political, historical and social background.

The first surprise of Ai Weiwei’s installation is that the sunflower seeds aren’t really sunflower seeds. The 100 million tiny seeds covering the floor are actually carved porcelain, each one handmade by craftsmen in Jingdezhen, a city in China famed for its porcelain production and home to the craft’s contemporary masters. The miniature sculptures are indistinguishable from the real thing: check out Londonist’s excellent photo essay on the exhibition. From close up, the gray expanse comes into focus as tiny shells, complete with the characteristic oblong shape and miniaturized stripes. The exhibition is also meant to be traipsed through, crunching the pile of ceramic bits underfoot.

Ai Weiwei’s second surprise is the dawning realization that this outwardly fun and surreal piece has a political context and content that belies its pleasant exterior. Londonist writes, “The seeds represent the famine under Mao,” or the famine that resulted from the Communists’ Great Leap Forward, “and also the propaganda used during that era where Mao’s face would be the sun, and sunflower seeds would represent the people, turning toward him for sustenance.” The iconography of Mao and the field of sunflowers, in other words, is a historical metaphor fraught with contemporary irony. Mao could no more easily feed his people than these porcelain sunflower seeds could; both are empty promises, a brilliant shell around a hard truth. The porcelain field standing in for the masses who suffered under famine, Ai Weiwei’s seeds are like the detritus left after the flowers withered and died.

Individual seeds from Ai’s installation (photo by Dean Nicholas/Londonist)

Sunflower seeds as visual symbol also come to represent a China beyond the urban centers, the same agricultural China so decimated by the Great Leap Forward. Chewing sunflower seeds is a popular pastime on any Chinese street, though the chewing and spitting process is more identified with farmers or migrant workers from the countryside than the suited businessman cliche of contemporary China.

The Turbine Hall installation continues Ai’s political criticism of the Chinese Communist government through his work; in this case it seems that the historical critique becomes a symbol of the injustices of the present day. Though the Chinese government today may not be starving its people, it is keeping from them freedoms that are nourishing in a different way: freedoms of speech and political representation. The artist never shies away from speaking truth to power; his participation in a protest earlier this year against artist evictions from studios earned him an unacknowledged visit from the police that ended in surgery at a German hospital. This exhibition, the first entry by an Asian artist in the Turbine Hall series, comes at an interesting point in Ai’s career. The artist is gaining a huge amount of international traction as a public intellectual, a figure whose activist tweeting is part and parcel of his art.

Ai Weiwei, “Remembering” (2009) (image by theMUC, via zoltanjokay.de/zoltanblog)

Ai Weiwei has an ongoing relationship with material in his art. The artist’s media, the ingredients that create his sculptures and installations, are usually political in themselves. Take his “Remembering” at Haus der Kunst, a facade gridded with colored backpacks spelling “She lived happily for seven years in this world.” The quotation, spoken by a Sichuan mother whose daughter was killed in the collapse of a school during the recent earthquake, is presented in a medium that represents and comments on the innocence of its source. Many suspect that the schools’ collapse was brought on by shoddy construction, death becoming the final consequence of government corruption.

The Turbine Hall exhibitions, also known as the Unilever Series, presents an ongoing series of art installations in the space of an enormous turbine hall renovated in 2000 for the Tate by Herzog and de Meuron. Since its inception, the space has played host to some of the world’s most internationally renowned contemporary artists, including Louise Bourgeois, Doris Salcedo and Olafur Eliasson.

Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” (2010) is part of  Tate Modern‘s The Unilever Series. It opens tomorrow and runs until May 2, 2011

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...