Ai Weiwei

is a column with my personal observations in the field of sculpture.
I’m an art critic for magazines and a newspaper and correspondent
for Sculpture Network in The Netherlands. In Field Post,
I’m happy to share my experiences and thoughts with you. Anne Berk

Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds, 2010 © Ai Weiwei, photo: Tate Photography

Ai Wei Wei: Seeds of Change

According to the British Art Review magazine, Ai Wei Wei (Beijng, 1957) is the most powerful artist in the world. This versatile artist designed the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. As an activist, he openly criticized the Chinese government in blogs, twitters and documentaries, until they beat him up and detained him for three months. The world wide appeal for his release and his current house arrest dominate the headlines. But what about his sculpture? For Ai Wei Wei there’s no difference. Art and activism blend seamlessly into each other. Both rely on an independent way of thinking. ‘Art ought to be a tool, a carriage for conveying information.’

I went to see his exhibition in De Pont in The Netherlands, that had been presented earlier in Lousiana Art Museum in Denmark. There were key works to be seen such as Forever (2003), Fountain of Light (2007) and the well-known Sunflower Seeds (2010).

Initially, I felt somewhat disappointment by the sight of the porcelain ‘seedbeds’. Their size was modest, as compared to the presentation in Tate Modern two years ago. The floor installation looked familiar, reminding me of the lead floors of Carl Andre, or the pollen squares of Wolfgang Laib. But unlike Laib’s radiant yellow pollen, Ai’s seeds were hardly discernable from the grey floor. And when you reached out to touch the seeds, a museum guard raised his voice to warn you.


5.000 kg Sunflower Seed, 2010, porcelain sunflower seeds, dimensions variable,
Faurschou Foundation, (2x), foto Peter Cox

I envied the visitors of the show in Tate Modern, who could immerse themselves into a sea of no less then hundred million seeds. Walk over them, sit on them, hold them in there hands, as they happily did. To the delight of Ai Wei Wei, who intended to create a hands-on experience. But within 48 hours after the opening access was denied. Inhalation of the dust could cause health problems, according to the Tate direction. Was that the real reason? Or was this decision motivated by the fear of visitors sliding the tiny seeds into there pockets?

Ai’s fame turned replica’s of the seeds into expensive art objects. In 2011 a 100 kilogram bag did $550,000 at Sotheby’s. That’s about $5.60 a seed. The Chinese website offers them for $.25 per seed, claiming they’re handmade in Jingdezhen, the same town where Ai’s seeds were produced. This raises interesting questions. Is there any difference between the original artwork and the copy, produced by the same artisans? Does Ai want to comment on the fetishism of the art object and the mechanism of the art market? Knowing Ai Wei Wei is an admirer of Duchamp and Andy Warhol, you might think so. But there’s much more to it, if you look at them from a Chinese perspective.

Ai Wei Wei juggles with existing materials and the values that are attached to them. He creates new meanings that challenge the existing powers in the rapidly changing Chinese society. To make something new, you have to understand the old. Art reflects how people read themselves. There’s a strategy of representation. Art is not only about forms, but also about human behaviour. 1

The more I think about the Sunflower Seeds, the more interesting it gets. It’s no coincidence that Ai Wei Wei chose porcelain, a material so tied to the identity of the people, that it’s called ‘china’. Ai ordered the seeds in the ancient porcelain city Jingdezhen, where he gained popularity amongst the craftsmen for his generous payments. Each seed was created in a mould, baked, hand painted and baked again. It took 1600 skilled craftsman two years (!) to produce the hundred million seeds, an amount you can hardly imagine.
Ai is very much aware of his cultural heritage. But sometimes you have to leave the past behind, to start something new, as he cold-bloodedly demonstrated in 1995, with his photo sequence Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (206 BC -24 AD). Or, is this an invitation to talk about the destruction of heritage during the Cultural Revolution?
His choice of sunflower seeds doesn’t come out of the blue either. For Chinese people sunflowers revive bad memories. Mao identified himself with the sun, the centre of power and compared the people with sunflowers that blindly followed his every move. During times of famine, millions had to survive on sunflower seeds. And that gives a political dimension to this installation. You wonder whether Ai experienced hunger himself. That could be; as the son of the dissident poet Ai Qing, who was sent to the remote province of Xinjiang for ‘re-education’. There his father spent his time cleaning toilets. This experience left an indelible mark on Ai and his formation as an artist. 2
My father inspired me to speak the truth. You have to stand up.3


Fountain of Light, 2007 steel and glass crystals on a wooden base (h)700 x 529 x 400 cm courtesy the artist and Faurschou Foundation, photocredit Saskia Wijne

After spending eighteen years in exile, in 1976, the family was allowed to return to Beijing. The Cultural Revolution had just ended, a still undigested trauma. After Mao’s death, China has gradually liberalized the economy, and undergone an extraordinary transformation, for the last 30 years. Living standards have improved. Finally, people can decide where to live, what to buy and how to dress. There is more freedom, except for one thing. China is an authoritarian state, ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. Individual citizens can’t choose their leaders. They have no voice. And this leads to an unbearable situation.

The legacy of the Cultural Revolution was the belief in the transformational power of images… Artists made a symbolic challenge to the symbolic order of the dominant value system. The semiotic warfare of the Chinese avant-garde must be considered an attempt to redefine the Chinese cultural identity. writes Martina-Köppel Yang in her unsurpassed study Semiotic Warfare (2003). And this certainly applies to Ai Wei Wei.4

In Fountain of Light (2007), Ai shows how the utopian dream of Communism degraded into hollow decorum. He made a copy of  The Monument to the Third International that was designed at the beginning of the Russian Revolution by Vladimir Tatlin in 1919-1920. This icon of Communism is executed in crystal, like the chandeliers in palaces and bourgeois homes. Forever (2003) consists of a cylindrical construction of bicycles of the eponymous Chinese brand. The bicycle refers to the peasant revolution and illustrates how China is stuck in ideologies of the past. Together the bicycles form a sturdy framework, but there is only one problem. They are so tied up together, that they cannot move. So why not loosen up and give the individual bikes free reign?

In this vocabulary suddenly the meaning of the Sunflower Seeds falls into place. The hundred million porcelain seeds represent the People’s Republic of China. Apparently the seedbed consists of a uniform mass, but careful inspection reveals that every seed and every person is different. Ai Wei Wei holds them lovingly in his hands and contemplates their differences. China will change, no question about it, says Ai Wei Wei.

In his hands, the tiny Sunflowers Seeds turn into gunpowder that challenges the system. Seeds hold the promise of change. Only by recognizing the importance of the individual, China can grow. Anne Berk


Forever, 2003 42 bicycles (h) 275 cm, (ø) 450 cm, courtesy the artist, photo Peter Cox

1. Video Interview Ai Wei Wei with Anders Kold, curator of Lousiana Art Museum, 2011
2. Martina Köppel-Yang. Semiotic Warfare. The Chinese Avant-Garde, 1979-1989. A Semiotic Analysis, timezone 8, Beijng 2003, p. 35-38
3. Ibid. 1.
4. Charles Merewether. Ai Weiwei: Under Construction, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney Australia, 2008, p. 29

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