Monday, 28 February 2011
Ai Weiwei's installation of over a hundred million sunflower seeds in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall certainly leaves one speechless. Extremely though-provoking and embedded with profound meaning, the work exudes beauty but at the same time is rather disquieting.
The artist champions the idea that: "What you see is not what you see, and what you see is not what it means." The infinite landscape of sunflower seed husks appear apparently identical but are in fact each hand crafted in porcelain and each unique. Porcelain is one of China's most prized exports and despite the sheer quantity of seeds, Weiwei chose to have each one individually hand-sculpted and hand-painted by Chinese specialists working in small-scale workshops. He purposefully wants to draw our attention to the 'Made in China' phenomenon by presenting us with the notion of traditional craftsmanship and mass production. 100 million appears to be an astoundingly large quantity and interestingly it equates to 5 times Beijing's population or a 1/4 of China's internet users.
The particular choice of sunflower seeds holds significant meaning. These seeds are a common Chinese street snack often shared by friends. Weiwei associates them with Mao Zedang's brutal Culltural Revolution (1966-76) which saw individuals stripped of their freedom. Propaganda depicted chairman Mao as the sun and the masses of Chinese citizens as sunflowers turning obediently towards him. The gesture of seed sharing is seen as a strong demonstration of human compassion, friendship and kindness during a time of extreme poverty, repression and uncertainty. It is without doubt a profound comment on the relationship between an individual and the masses. Equally, Weiwei hopes it will question us in the following ways-
What does it mean to be an individual in today's society?
Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together?
What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future?
The final question is definitely apt to me as I believe it is up to my generation of designers to offer solutions to combat the consumer driven society we live in and its destructive effects on our planet.