Ai Weiwei and the Art of Activism: 100 Million Seeds, 100 Million Voices

Ai Weiwei filled Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds
which he encourages visitors to experience with all of their senses. Photo: CBC News Arts
This past week the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo, a Chinese intellectual, university professor, writer, and human rights activist who participated in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and helped establish a Human Rights Report of China that he published online and for which he was eventually imprisoned in 2008. During the award ceremony, the Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Liu’s “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights” and said of China that it had an obligation as a growing economic and political power to take more responsibility to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens. China has since denounced the awarding of the Prize to Liu Xiaobo, insisting that the political prisoner is a “criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law.”  In short, the award is an embarrassment to China, but has successfully placed a massive spotlight on the state of the freedom and the restraints on the exchange of information in China.

Observing these events unfold, I thought it was difficult not to reflect upon how Chinese artists, filmmakers, writers and cultural producers who circulate their art works beyond China to an increasingly global marketplace and audience will react. In the past several years, the Chinese contemporary art market and the number of individual Chinese collectors showing an interest in global art has exploded, opening up dialogue and debate in the country about the kinds of artistic traditions and global influences (many avant-garde, postmodern, conceptual, and/or anti-institutional in nature) that are inspiring a new generation of visual artists and those who follow and are interested in them.  Among them, conceptual artist Ai Weiwei has emerged as a leading figure of Chinese contemporary art and his high profile exhibition at the Tate Modern in London opening during the same week as the awarding of the Noble Prize is either calculated brilliance or the most amazing and ironic coincidence.

Ai Weiwei (artist, curator, architectural designer, activist)
 posing with a handful of seeds
Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1958, the son of a poet exiled during the Cultural Revolution who spent time with his father in labour camps as a child. As a student, Ai enrolled in film school and helped form an avant-garde artist association that was later disbanded when he left for New York in 1983. It was in the United States that he studied at the Parsons School of Design and would apply his interest in Dadaism and Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades to his practice. Returning to China in the 1990’s when his father fell ill, Ai’s art also began to show signs of reaction and commentary on the brewing social and political tensions within China, creating art works that explore the history and discourse of modernism/modernity and how they have been deployed in his homeland. This direction has proved controversial to say the least. For example, during the preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Ai famously withdrew support for his design that inspired the final “Bird’s Nest” stadium, claiming that the use of the building to promote China’s forward-looking modernism was nothing short of a “pretend smile.” 
Ai Weiwei was the artistic consultant on the spectacular building
project that became the symbol of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing--
a project from which he later withdrew his support.
As a result of the artist's outspoken commentary and heightened profile in the global art world, Ai's studio has since been put under surveillance and his blogs deleted by Chinese authorities (his website and blogs have subsequently existed on US servers that cannot be viewed in China). His most recent activism concerns the 2008 Sichuan earthquake where the death of school children in badly built schools was partly the result of funds for school building costs being taken by local Chinese officials. In the earthquake’s aftermath, the Chinese government attempted to downplay and cover up the severity of the event both in China and around the world. In response, Ai published the list of students on his blog and organized a one day boycott of the government mandated Green Dam spyware that was to be sold with every personal computer sold in China to prevent full access to the Internet (the initiative has since been postponed due in no small part to the artist’s efforts and the near impossibility of implementing a fully controlled Internet ban). At that time, Ai connected his art practice even more directly with his social concerns stating that: “As an artist, I will never be satisfied if I cannot reach…the nation’s problems. My activism is a part of me. If my art has anything to do with me, then my activism is part of my art.”

What then can we make of the artist’s exhibition and the centerpiece of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds spread across the Tate’s famed Turbine hall? It is reported that Ai commissioned 1600 artisans specializing in traditional porcelain making in one small Chinese city to produce each individual seed, challenging audiences to think in new ways about the ubiquitous "Made in China" label attached to many consumer goods. As Guardian art critic Adrian Searle suggested in a review Monday, the “undifferentiated field of grey” seems at first somewhat “disappointing.” Upon closer inspection and engagement however, Searle points out how the many layers of meaning speak to the process of silencing and capital expansion that China seems to be currently engaged with:  “Ai Weiweireadymade and Warhol's multiples and turned them into a lesson in Chinese history and western modernisation, and the price individuals in China pay for that. Every unique seed is homogenised into a sifting mass. Most contemporary Chinese art is a product made for western consumption, just as willow-pattern plates or porcelain vases were shipped out in huge quantities for the western market.” An important part of the exhibition thus shifts to the artist’s concern to give voice to the “masses” represented in his work. Visitors are encouraged to record and share their opinions and dialogue with the artist in an open format that is then circulated via the Internet—it is the kind of freedom and circulation of information that reflects the spirit of the new Nobel Peace Prize participant, a work of art that Liu Xiabo would no doubt endorse. 

Check out these two great video clips, the first a Tate short featuring interviews with Ai Weiwei and a documentary showing how the seeds were produced and their symbolic significance to Chinese culture, and the second a glimpse inside the Tate's Turbine hall with the sights and sounds of 100 million seeds.