Flower Corpses: The seeds that will not grow

23 Mar

Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds, Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, London

To trample all over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers would be absurd. Yet Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower seed exhibition is inviting you to crunch, dance and play in.

The 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds filling the Tate’s Turbine Hall create a baffling mix of play and toil, life and grey insignificance, sun and snow.
The blurb for China’s most politically outspoken artist installation baffles the mind:

“What you see is not what you see, and what you see is not what it means”, it reads. More like Mad Hatter mutterings than the words of a political activist.

There’s truth behind this mysterious sentiment.

From the Turbine Hall Bridge the landscape of grey initially looks like a huge slab of dull concrete with visitors mingling round like ants from that height.

The fact that the exhibition is only a few centimetres on the ground combined with the airy feel of Turbine Hall make its appearance all the more irrelevant. I admit it took me a while until I realised what I was actually looking at.

Yet as I walk closer, swings and slides and merry-go-rounds start to appear on my imaginary playground; the Tate Modern with its extremities being the perfect backdrop for this unique exhibition.


The grey seeds are no longer insignificant, they turn into sparkling snow. Like snow, the bed of seeds is a sanctuary for you to lie in and make a sunflower angel, only for it to be trampled on moments later by visitors. Ever evolving and infinite, we are insignificant to the masses and they are insignificant to us.

The grey seed is brought to life as I hold a handful, imagining bright yellow faces springing from their humble abodes. A sunflower planted in snow, much like the poppies grew in the fields of death.

Yet, the seeds are not natural or playful. The tides change as I’m brought back to reality, swimming back from the sea of seeds. They are in fact hand crafted porcelain replicas, taking two and a half years to make each and every one mounting to. In which time, a real seed would have blossomed and sprung above your garden fence.

A brief understanding of the exhibitions background brings its significance into a completely new light. The makers of the seeds worked in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. These seeds are denied the chance to grow, perhaps reflecting upon the mass produced nature of China where the skills of thousands of craftsmen go to waste.


The effort put into each unique stone steers far from the ‘Made in China’ label we are so used to seeing.

The sculpture also rids traditional thoughts on the precious nature of porcelain. A child may stare in admiration at their ‘Made in China’ porcelain doll in its glass case, and then trample on it in its mass form.

The figures combined with the sculpture; 1,600 workers, 100million seeds etc, all add to the facelessness of the nation.
Upon reflection, there’s a sadness about the piece; an almost dusty feel to it, as though you’ve watered and fed a plant and it cannot grow because there’s no sunshine.

Whilst the name of the piece would not necessarily be thought of as significant, it’s interesting that Ai Wei Wei chose such a hopeful name; a seed signifies new beginnings after all.
Alone, each individual seed would be nothing. Yet working together with thousands of others, like a vast grey army, somehow works so brilliantly.

The exhibition needs to be experienced to be fully enjoyed; pictures do not do it justice.

It will be open to the public until May 2nd, 2011 at Tate Modern.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: