Installation view at Haines Gallery of Ai Weiwei’s “Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds)” from 2009 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BERKELEY, California — At Haines Gallery in San Francisco’s Financial District, I finally got to see Ai Weiwei’s notorious “Kui Hua Zi” (Sunflower Seeds). There has been much hype around Ai Weiwei and this particular installation, and seeing it caught me by surprise. The Haines Gallery installation was smaller than I expected and much calmer than the media surrounding it. Yet as I looked on, the piece and its maker’s history withdrew into the background, while its powerful implications and art historical relevance grew. It is a truly remarkable piece.

The original installation in London’s Tate Modern in 2010 first drew media attention in the form of critical praise, which was quickly replaced with concern. Viewers were encouraged to walk on and play in the installation, and health issues arose surrounding the ceramic dust created from that interactivity. The Tate Modern roped off the installation to the public. It was an unfortunate solution that the curator and artist fought to avoid, but the health worries won. Health concerns trump artistic practice, when it comes to the audience at least, but this felt lame. After the large installation at Tate Modern was over, the piece was divided into smaller installations that have been shown all over the world.

Since then, Ai’s detention by Chinese authorities last year justifiably turned into a media frenzy. This wasn’t the first unwarranted imprisonment of the increasingly political artist by Chinese authorities. As well as being a globally celebrated artist, Weiwei has become synonymous with political activism in China, and his work is inseparable from the country he increasingly battles. Looking at “Kui Hua Zi,” it’s hard to not focus on the legend of Ai Weiwei and the history of the installation instead of on what is in front of you. Ai’s work has become a package deal with political activism, Chinese censorship, and powerful art all included.

Haines Gallery is displaying a small square weighing in at a quarter of a ton. With angled edges and modeled corners, the installation is reminiscent of the first layer of a step pyramid. This surprised me: the form felt contrived, and too contained for the overwhelming quantity of hand-painted, one-of-a-kind sunflower seeds and their political implications — historically, China had placed a strong emphasis on uniformity.

Detail of “Kui Hua Zi”

The installation is a nod to Mao Zedong, who referred to his citizens as sunflowers that follow his every move, making him the all-powerful sun. During Mao’s reign, he enacted the Great Leap Forward, an ill-conceived campaign to modernize China away from an agrarian society that resulted in millions of deaths by starvation — a likely subject for the artist to quietly tackle symbolically.

The piece also speaks a great deal about factory labor, a buzzword in North America when it comes to China. Production for creating so many seeds was an intensive and meticulous process taking two years and 1,600 factory workers to complete; it seems that when artists use factory workers it is conceptually engaging, but when Apple does it it is infuriating, neither of which seem to hinder sales. Sitting before a ¼-ton pile of hand-painted and double-fired ceramic sunflower seeds, one feels the long hours and many hands involved in the work. Whether the metaphor is strengthened or weakened by using actual factory laborers is questionable.

Of course, having worked for artist Tara Donovan on her Mylar installations and Pin Drawings series, I couldn’t help but identify with the workers behind tediously constructed, albeit mesmerizing, installation art. I’m sure I was paid much better and I assume my work environment was unrecognizably more friendly, but either way, much of the work by famous contemporary artists today, in both production and consumption, more closely resembles the output of luxury designers or architects than the traditional notion of how artists work. Ai used a factory of workers to talk about factory labor and Chinese ideals concerning individuality; the contradictions are embedded in the piece, which may why it’s so compelling.

“Field” by Antony Gormley

Of course, Ai Weiwei is not the first to do an installation like this; Antony Gormley did “Field” as early as 1989, which has been installed five times across the globe. Each installation solicits the help of many local workers and local clay to complete the project, including one installation in Guangzhou, China.

Gormley aside, Ai’s sunflower seeds emerge from the high modernist concept of the Color Field. Mark Rothko, famous master of the visual field, wanted to create a space for looking, filled with color and energy, yet without one spot on which your eye would settle and focus. Successfully executed, a resulting painting holds your vision in a state of limbo, a pleasing experience of grasping a work entirely while simultaneously unfocused on any one section.

Since Rothko and others, modernist fields have been adopted and updated to included more overtly conceptual content. While looking at Ai’s installation, I remembered Félix González-Torres’ “Untitled (Placebo)” (1991). Although González-Torres’s work was more about the symbolic act of interacting with his work than the origins of the candy, the idea of a conceptual and visual field remains intact. Looking back now, I cannot help but wonder where the candy had come from and what new narrative that investigation could inspire. Since the advent of postmodernism, we cannot simply ignore these questions. Although that makes it harder to enjoy the art at times, the readings become deeper and more culturally interconnected.

Another field I want to mention is Wolfgang Laib’s “Pollen from Hazelnut” (1992). Laib is much more naturalistic than González-Torres or Ai, monk-like in his collection of hazelnut pollen for this sublime installation. Laib’s work is about patience, care, natural beauty, and personal dedication, in many ways antithetical to Ai’s piece and the work of many blue-chip artists today. Maybe one could call Laib disconnected from today’s global economy, but I admire his conviction and the simplicity of his work.

Installation shot.

Ai has thoroughly embraced his role as a provocateur of the Chinese government as well as an internationally renowned artist. The work he creates is often as layered and conflicting as his life. “Kui Hua Zi” (Sunflower Seeds) is on the surface very similar to Laib’s “Pollen from Hazelnut” yet entirely different given Weiwei’s political climate and motivations. Gazing on “Kui Hua Zi” (Sunflower Seeds) produces oppositional feelings: it is a calm and beautiful modernist field, it is the controversial and politically loaded work of a global artist/activist. Picking through implications from the media, the country, and the politics are integral aspects of understanding this work.

Ai Weiwei: Kui Hua Zi continues at Haines Gallery (49 Geary Street, Fifth Floor, Union Square, San Francisco) until October 27.

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...