Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds


Jees, Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds, exhibited in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, just depresses me.

No, I’m not talking about the “authoritarian” tactics of the Tate Modern (who’ve stopped people from walking on the seeds), or of Mao (who’s been understood to be the focus of the artwork’s critique).

I’m thinking about the labour involved. 1600 people for over 2 years. Paid “slightly more than a living wage”.

Surely all the contradictions of capitalism are visible here? That it puts 1600 skilled people at risk of losing their jobs, and thus their lives; that they can only keep their jobs so long as the commodities they produce are profitable (i.e. so long as Unilever and the Tate are paying Weiwei); that they must make something utterly useless to be shipped off around the globe.

Was it exploitative? For the liberal mindset it was an act of charity. For me, yes it was crass exploitation. Those people were forced to sell their labour. They had to engage in repetitive and alienating work (no matter that each seed is unique), to create surplus profit (for both Weiwei and the Tate and who knows: to trace the flows of cash would be difficult; I suspect this surplus value is not necessarily directly extracted, but is mediated through other forms of exchangeable value… perhaps cultural value: certainly the conclusion we draw from this artwork is that the commodification of culture is complete).

Beyond the matierial, what about the symbolic significance of this artwork? What is this artwork, and the relations of production that it embodies, a signal of? I think perhaps it is simultaneously a symbol of the contradictions of capitalism and of their triumph configured in the failure of the communist revolution in China. This piece by Weiwei is like the tragic farce of the Berlin Wall coming down all over again. And, it seems to me that Weiwei’s piece revels in this, that it looks forward to the New China, in which we’re all to be one mass of  individuals. One mass put to work to reproduce the system that ensalves us.


My thoughts are not particularly clear: let me know if you have any comments/thoughts. Here’s a link:



~ by Wit on January 26, 2011.

One Response to “Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds”

  1. “Ai Weiwei Freedom”. Art, image. Ai Weiwei.

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