a tale of a few cities

Ai Weiwei and the Five Finger Discount

Posted in appropriation, Art, auction, China, Conceptual Art, illustration, London, Painting, Sculpture by petercombe on July 19, 2011

Detail of Ai Wei Wei sunflower seeds from the Tate Modern in London

For the eleventh commission in the Tate Modern‘s Unilever Series, Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei had filled the museum’s Turbine Hall with millions of life-sized sunflower seed husks made out of porcelain. The collective effort of a number of specialists from Jingdezhen, China, the hand-crafted seeds were individually formed and painted. Before the museum was alerted to the installation’s dangers of lead paint and silica dust, visitors were encouraged to touch and walk on the carpet of tiny replicates. Before a barrier was erected around the perimeter of the installation, I wondered how many visitors were tempted to pilfer samples of the tiny seeds (see photo above). In February of this year Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening sale in London surpassed the $192,000 estimate, netting $559,394 for a 100-kilogram pile of Weiwei’s seeds. That puts worth of the stolen seeds pictured above at about $33.60.

Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds

Posted in Art, China, Installation, Painting, Sculpture, video by petercombe on April 8, 2011


‘Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds’ video is beautiful and moving. It sheds light on the thought process behind the project, part of The Unilever Series at Tate Modern, UK. The porcelain seeds were made in a town called Jingdezhen. All 100 million porcelain seed husks were produced by craftspeople, many of whom had previous to Weiwei’s employment, gone bankrupt.

I saw the installation during a recent trip to London, but was saddened that previous to my visit, viewers were no longer able to walk amongst the display due to hazardous toxins. The tons of porcelain seeds were kicking up a fine ceramic dust, easily breathed into the lungs of art aficionados. Visitors can now only gaze at Ai’s piece from a cordoned off observation deck.

Ai has not been heard from since he was seized on April 3 at Beijing airport about to board a flight to Hong Kong. The U.S. and EU have protested his detention.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s call for the Release of Ai WeiWei >

Tate Modern’s message via @robbiesharp >

Tate Modern, The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei

Posted in Art, Installation, London, Sculpture by petercombe on February 8, 2011

The Unilever Series: Ai WeiweiSunflower Seeds, 2010

I’m going to London in a few days for a couple of weeks and am looking forward to seeing Ai Weiwei’s installation at the Tate Modern. Sunflower Seeds, made up of millions of small works, each apparently identical, but actually unique. However realistic they may seem, these life-sized sunflower seed husks are in fact intricately hand-crafted in porcelain.

Each seed has been individually sculpted and painted by specialists working in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Far from being industrially produced, they are the effort of hundreds of skilled hands. Poured into the interior of the Turbine Hall’s vast industrial space, the 100 million seeds form a seemingly infinite landscape.

Porcelain is almost synonymous with China and, to make this work, Ai Weiwei has manipulated traditional methods of crafting what has historically been one of China’s most prized exports. Sunflower Seedsinvites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today. More at Tate >


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