Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds I






Tate Modern's Turbine Hall is misty with ceramic-dust, which has come from the Chinese city Jingdezhen, along with one-hundred-million porcelain sunflower seeds. 
This is the Unilever Series' latest installation, and one that rivals Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project of 2004. Its scale is hard to reckon: were each seed a person, Beijing's entire population would be here five times over. Like a beach of pebbles, the quantity of sunflower seeds and their way of blurring into infinity and abstraction is sublime. So too is the thought of their fabrication. Over one thousand workers were involved in mining the stone, processing it into clay, casting it into individual moulds, firing, hand-painting, firing again, and finally, transporting in white bags to London. 
A beautifully shot film tracks this process, Ai Weiwei explaining the skill needed to paint each seed in three or four strokes of a brush, and rows of women sitting around kitchen tables, working on them. If one seed got into a shoe and walked out around London, it would be as if a Chinese woman was separated from her Jingdezhen sisters. In the film, they smile at the wages they have earned, and say none of them understands quite what Weiwei is doing. But no matter: they like the myth that they're making.


The sunflower seed germinates into several allusions. They are common street-food across the world, shared from an open palm like a crust of bread between two companions. Yet for the Chinese, Mao was their overpowering sun, and they his harvest of flowers. Trudging through one hundred million of them in The Turbine Hall, a nation's oppression is almost tangible underfoot, rubbing unbearably close and being raked into submission. Stepping out feels like leaving a country.  


The Turbine Hall's industrial past is an ideal location for a 'Made In China' job-lot. Yet each seed is smaller or larger than the next, each stripe thinner or wider, and their origin is largely domestic. One seed is malformed, as if mouse-nibbled, and another's stripes have gone. 
Each seed also contains a germ of potential, for a thought, a wish, a memory of the installation, or words shared on this beach of a harvesting nation.