Ai Weiwei Unloads Millions of Sunflower Seeds on New York This Winter

A child plays with some of the seeds in Ai Weiwei's installation 'Sunflower Seeds' at The Tate Modern in London, England on October 11, 2010. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Sunflower Seeds, the installation that is arguably the best-known work of Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, will be on display for the first time in North America at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York City beginning this Saturday, January 7, 2012.

The exhibit consists of millions of individually hand-sculpted and hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds produced in the Chinese town of Jingdezhen. The intricate production process employed over 1,600 people who used traditional porcelain production techniques to create, cumulatively, a modern work of art.

Sunflower Seeds originally premiered in London at Tate Modern in October 2010, as an interactive work of art inviting people to walk over the field of handcrafted seeds. However, a few days after its opening the Tate issued a statement saying that the museum, in conjunction with the artist, had decided not to allow visitors to walk across the sculpture as "the interaction of visitors with the sculpture can cause dust which could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time."

Ai's Sunflower Seeds is a commentary — with political, social and economic overtones — on the global phenomenon of mass production and the attendant decline in traditional production practices. Contemplating the spiritual and material significance of sunflowers in Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Ai makes reference to political paintings of Chairman Mao surrounded by sunflowers. "Chairman Mao is the sun," says Ai, "and all the ordinary people loyal to the party are the sunflowers."

Early in 2011, Ai was detained by Chinese authorities for three months due to his unreserved criticism of the Chinese government. His troubles with the ruling Communist Party have given rise to the creative expression of other political satires such as the animation by motion artist Pi San (real name Wei Bo) referencing Ai's sunflower seeds and detention to speak about Chinese government's strong censorship policies.

Watch a video of Ai Weiwei explaining the significance of Sunflower Seeds and offering details of the production process. (14 min., 42 sec.)

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Nadia Rasul is an Asia Blog Contributor. She is a human rights activist, and a media, technology and global politics enthusiast.