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Ai Weiwei's 'Sunflower Seeds'

Artist Ai WeiWei amongst his “Sunflower Seeds” (More photos below)

Lately, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has made more headlines for his outspoken socio-political activism in his homeland than he has for his art, but that changed last week when his latest installation was unveiled at the Tate Modern in London. Upon first glance, Sunflower Seeds is nothing more than a vast grey expanse in the Modern’s large Turbine Hall, but get closer and you’ll see that the grey floor is actually comprised of millions of individual sunflower seeds – hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, made in China.

The first question that arises is, now that you know that each tiny seed was formed, fired and painted by an actual person, do you walk all over them, or is a more respectful approach called for? Weiwei wants you run on them, dance on them, crawl on them, whatever you feel like. He even admits that if he were a visitor he would steal one. However you interact with the exhibit, you can’t help but be mindful of the fact that a pair of human hands touched every single seemingly insignificant seed in the room.

The seeds themselves were made in Jingdezhen, a town that was once the center of porcelain manufacturing for China’s imperial court. In recent years, however, the court has had little need for new porcelain and the town nearly went bankrupt until Weiwei commissioned the seeds.

Visitors who made it during the opening week experienced the piece as it was originally intended – as an open space to walk through. But the installation attracted a crowd large enough to stir up unsafe levels of ceramic dust, and the museum, along with Weiwei, have closed that portion of the exhibit. Visitors can still see it, but only from an elevated walkway above, which is truly a shame since only seeing the seeds en masse, one indistinguishable from the next, is the opposite of what emotional reaction handling the seeds individually illicit.

Images courtesy of The Guardian