In the state-controlled propaganda art of revolutionary China, sunflowers carried a blunt symbolism: Mao Zedong was the sun and the Chinese people were the sunflowers, all facing one direction to receive the nourishing rays.
A generation later, in the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the symbolism is a bit more subversive. In 2010 Ai launched a show called Sunflower Seeds, where a riot of individual porcelain seeds–more than a hundred million of them, all hand-painted–were spread across the floor of a large hall at the Tate Modern in London. Ai wanted visitors to move freely across the installation, picking the seeds up, moving them around, doing whatever they wanted — all shown in the video above.
As a champion of freedom and an outspoken critic of China’s human rights record, Ai has come under heavy pressure from the Chinese regime. Early this year his Shanghai studio was demolished and he was later arrested and detained at secret locations for 81 days. Now he is forbidden from giving interviews or using the Internet. But before he was arrested, Ai was able to send a videotaped speech to the TED conference, outlining his views. You can watch it below. To learn more about the extraordinary Sunflower Seeds 2010 exhibit, you can watch the “TateShots” film above.