In the vast exhibition hall of London's Tate Modern, the installation looks from a distance like a huge patch of gravel. Perhaps it is the first stage of a construction site or the last stage of a demolition. Only when you come closer and crouch down can you identify the little objects. A discerning eye might determine that they are reproductions. The rest of us rely on an accompanying video about Ai Weiwei's project, which explains that the Chinese artist had commissioned a village of artists to produce the porcelain objects and paint them to resemble the real thing. What from far away looks like a gravel parking lot is actually one hundred million artfully produced sunflower seeds.
This collection of black-and-white seeds possesses a certain beauty. Its vastness suggests the vastness of China itself. And though China might look like one thing from a distance, if you move closer and closer to the country, it becomes something else altogether. Even when you're pressed up against it, you still might mistake the simulacrum for the real.
To understand Ai's Sunflower Seeds, you have to dig a little bit deeper. It helps to know that Chinese leader Mao Zedong and his Communist Party were often represented as the sun, as in the popular song, "The east is red, the sun is rising/China has brought forth a Mao Zedong." Sunflowers, then, are the people of China, who bend toward the beneficent light of the leader. And sunflower seeds are the product of the Chinese people.
In the Tate Modern, though, all you see are the seeds. There is no sun. There are no sunflowers. There is only the fruit of a thousand flowers blooming.
But it is Ai Weiwei, not the Chinese leadership, who has generated these seeds. To create the work, Ai commissioned the artisans of Jingdezhen, a town famous in China for producing porcelain for the emperor and for export. During the Maoist era, the artisans also produced badges and statues of the Chinese leader. But now it is an artist with connections to the West who brings employment to the artisans. Ai cheerfully admits that the artists are not quite sure why they're doing what they're doing. But they are happy for the work and grateful to the artist. These echoes of sentiments from earlier eras are surely also part of the overall artwork.
Ai Weiwei has acquired a reputation for irony, whimsy, and pointed satire. He has photographed himself flipping the bird at the White House and in Tiananmen Square. He has made sculptures out of materials scavenged from ancient houses destroyed during China's relentless construction boom. He has dropped ancient vases to simulate the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. He has taken a nearly naked picture of himself jumping in the air with a stuffed animal concealing his groin. The caption, which reads "grass mud horse covering the middle," becomes overtly critical when you pronounce the characters with different tones to produce "fuck your mother, the Communist Party central committee."
But Ai was not content with making sly criticisms of the Chinese government. He openly denounced the authorities as "totalitarian" when he refused to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. He blogged and tweeted about any number of sensitive subjects, from the June 4, 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square to the shoddy construction that left so many dead after the Wenchuan earthquake. The Chinese government tolerated Ai Weiwei's art in part because of his international reputation and perhaps because huge sculptures of conjoined bicycles were not exactly provoking the masses to revolt. The tweets and the blog entries, on the other hand, had the scent of jasmine to them. With the June 4 anniversary approaching and crowds deposing leaders in the Middle East, the Chinese authorities detained Ai on April 4 and kept him in prison for nearly three months.
Ai is now out, along with AIDS activist Hu Jia, who served more than three years on charges of sedition. As part of the terms of his recent release, Ai reportedly can't give interviews or use his Twitter account for a year. Also during that period, he can't leave Beijing without permission.
In democracies, artists can say what they like, more or less, but the price they pay is attenuated political impact; gone are the days when Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Jungle transformed social attitudes and created different political facts on the ground. In non-democracies, meanwhile, artists can have tremendous political impact, but often it's less for what they say than for what they're prevented from saying. With his art, Ai Weiwei has carefully navigated this borderline between the land of the Marginal and the land of the Forbidden in an attempt to be both relevant and provocative. Stripped of his Twitter megaphone, he might have to go back to letting his art speak for itself.
But it's hard to imagine Ai Weiwei falling silent. In her poem to the artist, The Last Son of China, Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor J.P. puts words in the artist's mouth:
I have to speak as long as I have breath…no matter how thin…even if you tear out my tongue…I’ll still have my teeth…even if you pull out my teeth…I’ll still have my eyes… even if you gouge out my eyes…I’ll still have my ears…even if you pierce my eardrums…I’ll still have my hands… even if you chop off my hands…I’ll still have my guts …even if you grind up my guts… I’ll still have my heart that won’t stop beating… even if you smash my heart into a million pieces… they will turn into a billion sunflower seeds…
Perhaps Ai just has to wait it out. State repression in China comes in cycles, with thaws and freezes succeeding one another according to the rise and fall of political factions in the leadership and the waxing and waning of civic courage. This latest crackdown has tempered the optimism of those who believe that economic liberalization easily translates into political liberalization. But a more careful reading suggests a different interpretation.
"The crackdown reveals just how far Chinese legal reform and civil society have progressed," writes FPIF contributor Vivian Yang in The Silver Lining in China's Crackdown. "Among those jailed or suffering from 'enforced disappearances,' a distinct group is fighting for human rights within the legal frame — China's human rights lawyers. They defend the civil and political rights of Chinese citizens. Only after the Chinese Communist Party arrests them do we begin to notice these emerging human rights defenders."
It's not just human rights law. The field of environmental law has exploded in China. A movement has emerged to combat the wanton destruction of old buildings and monuments. Even the taboo subject of the death penalty has attracted a new civic initiative. China executes more people than the rest of the world combined, according to Amnesty International. "In the last 15 years, only two or three people in this country were trying to abolish the death penalty," law professor He Weifang told The Washington Post. Now he estimates that there are enough abolitionists to qualify as "a movement."
As FPIF columnist Walden Bello points out, workers also have been asserting their rights, with several strikes last year against transnational corporations resulting in substantial wage increases. But "a second wave of protest since May of this year, this time taking a violent riot form, has both government and the capitalist elites worried," Bello writes in Capital Is a Fickle Lover. "The mass base of the current protests is not the relatively educated, higher-paid workers at big Japanese subsidiaries, but the low-paid migrant workers that work for small and medium Chinese-owned enterprises that turn out goods for foreign buyers."
The Western media focuses on the courageous individuals, the Ai Weiweis and the Hu Jias and the Liu Xiaobos. These are indeed impressive people, and campaigns to free them are essential. But it's the movements that they inspire — and the difficult and patient work of expanding the rule of law in China — that will ultimately change the face of the country.
I suspect that Ai Weiwei feels the same way. Rather than doing his art entirely in isolation, he is constantly looking for ways to involve more and more people in his productions. In 2007, he arranged for 1,001 small-town Chinese to visit Germany as part of his Fairytale project. Around 1,600 artisans participated in Sunflower Seeds project. Perhaps for his next magic trick, which will be made all the more difficult by his internal exile in Beijing, he will turn a million Chinese bureaucrats into democrats — with the help of the thousands of civic activists throughout China. Such a national transformation would be the ultimate performance art.