Millions of Hand-Painted Porcelain Sunflower Seeds

Craft & Design

Chinese artist Ai WeiWei envisioned the porcelain sunflower seed installation in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London, and worked with craftspeople of Jingdezhen to create over 100 million of the little things. Garth at Extreme Craft has a bit to say about the installation, having visited the ceramicists of Jingdezhen before:

Each sunflower seed is produced using a ceramic mold, then cleaned up a bit, handpainted and fired in a kiln. The final results are almost indestinguishable from the real thing. I had the opportunity to see a full ton of Ai WeiWei’s sunflower seeds at an exhibition put together by Arcadia University (that subsequently traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Porland), and even that relatively small amount of seeds shifted my paradigm. By contrast, the Tate Modern contains over 150 million tons of the porcelain seeds.

Ai WeiWei always speaks eliptically about his work. Every time you think you might have the meaning pinned down, new meanings emerge. According to the artist, the sunflower theme references sunflower seeds surrounding Mao like the sun. The Mao theme is definitely taken with a nudge and a wink, as WeiWei is currently under house arrest, struggling with the Chinese government, which is harassing him by attempting to shut down his studio in Shanghai, supposedly because it was built without the proper permits (this from the government that allows improperly built apartment buildings to topple like dominoes).

I can testify to the vastness of Jingdezhen and its capacity to create massive amounts of product. By Ai WeiWei’s estimate, more than 1600 people were employed in Jingdezhen to produce the Tate exhibition. Enjoy the video that I posted above. It shows Jingdezhen in all of its squalor and glory. The young women in Jingdezhen almost always dress to the nines when they’re working in the studio. The footage in the video of ladies in their high heels is right in line with my own experience.

In addition to the sheer, unknowable vastness of the project, I love Ai WeiWei’s talk of the exhibition as a form of craftivism–calling attention to the machinations ofJingdezhen while employing massive numbers of people who could use the work (the state porcelain factories there were shut down about a decade ago). The whole town is one big gossip mill, so the fact that Ai WeiWei views the prospect of the exhibition creating an urban legend about the production of the sunflower seeds is another interesting angle that I hadn’t considered.

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Becky Stern is a Content Creator at Autodesk/Instructables, and part time faculty at New York’s School of Visual Arts Products of Design grad program. Making and sharing are her two biggest passions, and she's created hundreds of free online DIY tutorials and videos, mostly about technology and its intersection with crafts. Find her @bekathwia on YouTube/Twitter/Instagram.

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