'[T]he sunflower seeds can never be planted and can never grow, but the process of continuously doing something that's not really useful in such a massive way and takes such a long time and with so many people involved reflects those conditions'
(W. Ai, quoted in J. Bingham, Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London 2010, p. 81).
A particularly meaningful work for the artist, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) is one of the earliest Sunflower seed sculptures by Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. A monumental sculptural installation comprised of thousands of individually hand-painted porcelain pieces and weighing one ton, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) is first experienced as a single entity: an orderly structure built out of the collective. In this monochromatic vista, each component seed forsakes its own individuality to become part of a vast and expansive grey and white landscape. Yet despite its voluminous scale, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) maintains a quiet and minimal presence. Subtly washing over the floor or placed into a conical pile, the work is reminiscent of a pebbled shore or Zen rock garden. Upon interacting with the seeds, there is a moment of realisation at the discovery that they are in fact exquisitely rendered, methodically and traditionally crafted porcelain; a stark contrast to their organic inspiration.
Executed in 2008, two years before the seminal Tate Modern exhibition of one hundred million seeds that was featured in the Turbine Hall, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) has become Ai Weiwei's most iconic and celebrated body of work. The first Chinese artist to be awarded the Unilever commission, Ai Weiwei continues to stimulate the art world with his iconoclastic gestures. Whether he is documenting himself dropping a priceless antique or reconfiguring Qing dynasty furniture to negate its original utilitarian function, Ai Weiwei has created a truly unique artistic vernacular. Through the deconstruction and often, reconstruction, of traditional Chinese art forms, Ai Weiwei thrusts these culturally-specific mediums and art forms into a contemporary context.
As seen in Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds), the traditional ceramic medium of porcelain is extracted from its original 'function' and placed into a new context, completely incongruent with its historical purpose. For the production of these works, Ai employs local craftsmen from the town of Jingdezhen to manufacture the seeds in bulk and then paint each seed individually. During China's dynastic period, the production of porcelain at Jingdezhen was reserved exclusively for wares of the Imperial Court. The rise of porcelain production in the West in the seventeenth century spelled the decline of Jingdezhen in both wealth and official patronage. In creating a mock industry with this project, Ai references both a historically revered 'official' art form and contemporary mass produced goods. It is with elegant simplicity and a playful attitude that Ai offers the viewer an ironic, multifaceted commentary on Chinese systems of value.
This at times irreverent attitude can be seen in the artist's elevation of inherently 'useless' objects. The porcelain sunflower seeds cannot be planted, grown or eaten. Their inorganic nature elicits a probing curiosity and therein lies the work's most powerful aspect: the basic freedom to question. When understood in the context of modern China and Ai's role as a political activist, Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) becomes a poignant and incisive commentary directed toward the lack of transparency within Chinese politics. as the artist articulated: 'the sunflower seeds can never be planted and can never grow, but the process of continuously doing something that's not really useful in such a massive way and takes such a long time and with so many people involved reflects those conditions' (W. Ai, quoted in J. Bingham, Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London 2010, p. 81).