Ai Weiwei and the Seeds of Freedom

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.

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