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Ai Weiwei: On dissidence and sunflower seeds

U-Greats will cast a weekly spotlight on iconic creators who, over time, have informed and inspired both our own represented artists and the wider team here at Unit London.

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and curator whose artistic pursuits are propelled by an unwavering, provoking activism. Critical of human rights violations on a political and global scale, Weiwei’s controversial works have addressed issues such as China’s corruption and the refugee crisis, among others. His pieces combine the minimalist and conceptual traditions, bearing semblance to the works of David Hammons and Robert Gober.

One of Weiwei’s most powerful installations, Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern in 2010, perfectly captures the spirit of his critique of contemporary society. 100 million porcelain sculptures of sunflower seeds stretched over the cement floor of Turbine Hall, each one a fruit of labour of the 1,600 artisans who created them over the course of two years. The toil poured into crafting millions of sunflower seeds alludes to the erosion of individuality implicated in mass-manufacturing – a recurring theme in Weiwei’s art; in turn, the intricate work taken to form each individual seed is contextualised by his invitation for visitors walk upon the seeds: the fragility of porcelain under Westerners’ feet portrays the subjugation of Chinese workers to rampant consumerism.

Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei, 2010: Image by Mike Kemp

Ai Weiwei is renowned as perhaps the most outspoken Chinese artist practising today, braving against the wrath of the Chinese state with an unprecedented vigour. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, is a series of photos exhibiting Weiwei dropping and smashing a 2000 year old ceremonial urn of substantial cultural value. Similarly, in greeting the Tiananmen Square Gate with his middle finger (1995), Ai Weiwei expresses his discern of the site of the 1989 massacre, where the state shot peaceful protesters. In his Study of Perspective, this very same finger is raised to various monuments around the globe – in this way, Weiwei’s renunciation of the state is not limited to China, and the photos’ touristic style alerts us to our roles as passive bystanders.

In 2010, the very same year Weiwei’s home and studio were placed under government surveillance, he created a marble sculpture of a surveillance camera, with the bottom of the piece bearing an uncanny resemblance to neck and shoulders. Weiwei is watching China as much as they’re watching him; his work is thus fuelled by the oppression it faces. Despite his unwarranted imprisonment for 81 days, the confiscation of his passport for over 4 years, and the destruction of his Shanghai studio, Weiwei is unshakeable – “I don’t see myself as a dissident artist,” he says. “I see them as a dissident government!”. Constrained but never controlled, Ai’s frequent engagement on social media makes him and his influence ever-present.

Ai Weiwei taking a selfie after being beaten up by the police / Image: Telegraph

  Ai Weiwei taking a selfie after being beaten up by the police (2009). Image: Telegraph

Ai Weiwei’s recent exploits have extended beyond pursuing the issues surrounding contemporary Chinese society and have spoken out against the Syrian migrant crisis. In the 2016 installation in Konnzerthaus Berlin concert hall, 14,000 life vests – collected by Weiwei on Lesbos, a Greek island that acts as a midway point for refugees fleeting Syria for Europe  – were hung around the columns. Similarly, the documentary Human Flow (2017) challenges the viewer to empathise with the unimaginable – a common thread throughout Weiwei’s work as the artist takes on the onerous task of forcing us to confront our own negligence. Weiwei’s art has humanism in its every crevice – a true testament to him being one of the Greats.

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