Piece Of The Week: Sunflower Seeds // Ai Weiwei

If you’ve read the news in the past few days, it’s possible you will have seen the name Ai Weiwei, or even read an article on him. For those of you who haven’t, Ai Weiwei is a Chinese political and conceptual artist.

There are many reasons why Weiwei has been in the news recently, and it’s not just to do with his major solo exhibition that’s soon approaching at The Royal Academy of Arts. To celebrate Weiwei’s exhibition this week’s Piece Of The Week goes to Weiwei’s installation piece Sunflower Seeds. Before I get into the piece itself some background is essential:

Weiwei’s story is a complicated one; his family and himself were exiled to a labour camp for reportedly being supporters of capitalism, Weiwei’s work that was influenced by Cubism and Surrealism (movements that were prohibited in China) was subsequently banned in China. Eventually Weiwei moved to New York during the 1980s where he began working as a conceptual artist. After Weiwei’s father fell ill, he returned to China in the 1990s, where he became a political activist and a political conceptual artist who often criticized the Chinese government and questioned political events. Fast-forward to 2011 and Weiwei was arrested for ‘economic crimes’ with his passport being seized, preventing him from leaving China.

In July, Weiwei finally received his passport enabling him to come to Britain to see his first major show in Britain by one of Britain’s biggest art institutes. It sounds straight forward and not very newsworthy, however British authorities refused to give him a work visa causing a huge amount of backlash from the art community. Home Secretary Theresa May soon changed the decision and Weiwei has now been granted a work visa in Britain, where he has been giving interviews to the media. He states that he received support from country ambassadors from France, Germany, Australia and The United States, but never from a British ambassador. In interviews, Weiwei has implied that British authorities had originally turned down his application in order to not upset relations with China, whether this is the case or not is up for debate.

With the admittedly very brief history on Weiwei and the complications of his near approaching exhibition, here is our Piece Of The Week.

Sunflower Seeds is an installation and a conceptual piece. The piece constitutes of 100 million porcelain sunflowers. The seeds all look similar, but are in fact hand crafted, each one different and unique. If seeing 100 million individual sunflower seeds taking up the size of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall (the piece was a temporary 2011 Turbine Hall exhibition) isn’t already an impressive sight, then the fact that each porcelain seed was sculpted and painted by hand by porcelain workers in China is a testament to Weiwei’s incredible attention to detail. Porcelain is often thought of as a typically Chinese item, and is one of the most important exports that China has. The choice of hand crafting each individual seed by Chinese workers and using specifically Chinese porcelain is of course no coincidence.

It’s likely that all of us have an item or two with the label ‘made in China’, Sunflower Seeds is a direct commentary on the boom in the Chinese manufacturing business and the problems that factory workers face due to this demand for mass-produced items.

Sunflower Seeds is one of those rare pieces that are totally immersive, powerful and awe-inspiring – a theme that runs true with all of Weiwei’s work.

The Ai Weiwei exhibition opens at The Royal Academy of Arts on 19th Sep-13th December 2015, and if you only go to one exhibition before 2015 ends, make it this one.

Words by Selene Mortimore

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