The project is almost exactly what it sounds like: a hundred million life-size porcelain sunflower seeds—each hand-molded, fired, and painted by a crew of ceramicists in Jingdezhen, China’s most famous pottery town. The project has been an open secret in Ai’s circle for months, but this is the first time that all hundred million seeds are being shown in public. It is a vast sea of gray seeds that weighs a hundred and fifty tons, and visitors are encouraged to walk through and toy with them. (What if people steal them? The Guardian asks, and Ai gives an elliptical answer.)
I saw the seeds in progress for the first time about seven months ago at Ai’s studio in Beijing, when I was writing a Profile of him for the magazine. Ai led me into a room about the size of a squash court, and, without explanation, we climbed out onto a rippling, crunching mass of objects that looked, at first glance, like ordinary seeds. I crouched down and ran my hands through the cool mass beneath my feet. The seeds are heavier than expected; each one is both naturalistic and ornate. Chinese people munch on sunflower seats all day but these are as inedible, Adrian Searle points out, as the marble sugar cubes produced by Duchamp, Ai’s icon. “It is like an ocean, right?” Ai said, as we crouched on them. There were fifteen million so far, he said, swiveling around to examine them. “This is less than the population of Beijing. It’s strange to look at it, but in total it will be almost ten times more than this.”
As a finished product, this piece has some obvious resonance to Ai’s other obsessions these days. Ai has been intensely focused on Twitter, sending his rants and declarations and appeals to thirty-six thousand Chinese readers who are—Who are they, actually? And where are they? Beijing? The hinterlands? Who knows? Whoever they are, they have never met in person but are united by a belief in an idea strong enough to keep them reading, despite the fact that Twitter is banned and can only be accessed through some technical gymnastics. Ai is also obsessed with other sets of numbers: the more than five thousand children who died in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008—in part because of faulty school construction—as well as the thirty to forty-five million people who died during the famine following the Great Leap Forward. Never have sunflower seeds been this political.
But the Guardian is reporting today that the exhibit has been closed:
The installation was closed all day and one visitor, who preferred not to be named, said she had been told it was for health and safety reasons because of the ceramic dust the tiny porcelain seeds were creating.
A Tate spokeswoman initially said it had been closed for maintenance rather than health and safety reasons. So many people had walked through it that it simply needed “putting back into shape,” she said.
But at 5.30pm the picture became less clear when she said the installation would not be reopening this evening and a statement would be issued some time later.
The stripy husk shapes are a grey mass – you can crunchily stomp across them – and they appear uniform and featureless until one picks one up and looks at it closely.
Is this about the way we look at China? Do we see a label that says “Made in China” and inwardly shrug at the thought of millions of faceless factory workers? Or about Chinese- government censorship, so much in the news following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo? Do we see those oppressed or killed under the regime of Chairman Mao, cut off before they could grow, or a city full of immensely skilled crafts-people, whose skills are no longer needed in mass-industrialised China? All this, yes, and more.