Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds show at Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea is earning a lot of big buzz. It’s famed artist and activist Ai Weiwei. It’s super posh Chelsea gallery Mary Boone. It’s large numbers: 130 million handcrafted porcelain sunflower seeds, (three to four million on view in New York) created by 1,600 artisans from Jingdezhen, China, a 20 to 30 step installation process that took one whole day. The numbers and names of this exhibition are huge. But what is it really about Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds at Mary Boone Gallery?
The square gallery is bare save for the enormous almost-too-perfect rectangle of the porcelain replicas of millions of sunflower seeds are spread out in front of viewers on the floor. They exist in this square as if only to entice you to reach out and dip your hands beneath the piles, spreading your fingers and letting the shells slip through, pleasantly messing their perfect formation. At the first showing of the seeds in London at the Tate, you could actually walk on the seeds, lay in them and make snow angels and what not. But a recent scare of toxic dust released from the porcelain now makes these actions only exist in your desire and imagination.
The artist, Ai Weiwei, may be best known for the scandal involving his attempted silencing of the Chinese government. He has been arrested, detained, and even kidnapped by the government all for his human rights activism and artistic expression. Safe to say there is a lot more going on behind the seeds. A sunflower seed is a metaphor for the people during China’s revolution. Not only did they provide food for all classes of people during that time, but their discarded shells left evidence of a person’s survival. It’s interesting to look at one individual seed in relation to the giant plot of seeds as a unit. Keeping where the seeds came from in mind, you kind of get this individual versus the masses vibe, and as a helpful press release states — this work acts as a commentary on China’s labor- intensive reputation. Not only is this represented in a visual way, but also literally, as the seeds were actually created by 1,600 workers living in Jingdezhen, an area of China well known for porcelain production.
The reactions of those around the gallery were something of delight. Almost everyone was leaned over, crouched down, getting as close as they can without getting too close. There is something about seeing this unconventional display of beauty and meaning. The tiny shells are painted but they’re not a painting. They make up a large 3D image but they’re not a sculpture, and their pure creation alone amazes people. If you walk in and out of all of the galleries on 24th street, even all the galleries in Chelsea, this show might be the most unique and visually simple, yet the most complex and beautiful.
Terri Ciccone is a contemporary and street art enthusiast living and writing in New York City. Terri is the founder and editor of ContrappostoArt.com, and her posts have appeared on Bostonist, Performer Magazine, Blast Magazine, Bushwick Daily and Art Ruby. She has experience interning at Artforum Magazine, The Museum of Fine Arts Boston and has worked at the Isabelle Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston. Like Haute Living New York? Join our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter @HauteLivingNY. Want Haute Living New York delivered to your inbox once a week? Sign up for our newsletter.