Thanks for the ‘sunflower seeds,’ Mr. Weiwei

A few of the fake sunflower seeds (life-size if you click on 'em).

Yesterday, I saw this BBC item about how supporters of one Ai Weiwei were helping him pay the $2.4 million in taxes and fees that Chinese authorities say he owes:

Thousands of people have donated money to pay a massive tax bill served on Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

By Monday, there had been donations totalling more than 5m yuan ($790,000; £490,000) to pay off the $2.4m in taxes and fines the authorities say he owes.

Many people believe he was served the bill because of his outspoken criticism of the government rather than because he had evaded taxes…

And I thought, Hey, is that the sunflower seeds guy? The story didn’t say…

And then I moved on and finished my Virtual Front Page for the day.

A few minutes ago, I went back to check — yep, he was the sunflower seeds guy!

This was an… artwork, um, installation… whatever… that I saw in London late last year, at the Tate Modern. It was 100 million fake sunflower seeds (made from porcelain, no less), strewn across the floor of this huge, warehouse-like room. Weiwei had somehow persuaded the people of some Chinese town to make them by hand. I don’t know whether overtime was involved. I think it was supposed to be an economic stimulus or something.

Here’s what we’re supposed to get out of it, if we’re the right sort of people:

The work continues to pose challenging questions: What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for society, the environment and the future?

This is one of those things that make me feel like a total philistine. I see a Van Gogh, and I get it — it’s beautiful. I see a Weiwei, and I turn into a Homer Simpson. I think, That’s impressive, all right, but… you can’t eat ’em. I also think:

  • Was that the best use of those people’s time?
  • Wouldn’t it have saved a lot of money just to use real sunflower seeds, or if you wanted fakes, run them off in a factory?
  • How much do you suppose it cost to transport those things here and spread them on this floor? Did they build this part of the building just for this display?
  • How are the people who made these? Are they better off for his having done this?
  • Are you sure I can’t eat them?

And so forth. You know what, scratch the Homer Simpson analogy; that’s demeaning (to me). Seeing things like this make me more like… Mark Twain and his waggish friends in The Innocents Abroad, berating the European tour guides for showing them all that old stuff, because by golly they were paying good money, and wanted to see something new, etc.

Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Right after the Weiwei exhibit, I saw something that I did understand — my very first public bathroom signage that actually said “WC.” So I took a picture of that. I felt reassured.

After that, we walked downriver a bit and toured the Globe theater — which, as it turns out, is not the actual, original Globe, nor in the right location — yet another fraud! Don’t get me started…

Anyway, I hope Weiwei gets out of trouble with the Chinese authorities.

Gazillions of fake sunflower seeds.

29 thoughts on “Thanks for the ‘sunflower seeds,’ Mr. Weiwei

  1. Mab

    Steven —

    A Chinese artist would probably rather it be about the art, not the artist. They are just that self-less. Or is that a stereotype?

    Did you not read that this is “a powerful commentary on the human condition?” That “each piece is a part of the whole, a commentary on the relationship between the individual and the masses?”


    The Chinese are good at being a content, unified people. Just like those seeds are content to be a modest part of a grander design for the greater good. You don’t see any side shows/jumping beans.

  2. Steven Davis

    It doesn’t take much with articles like this. Or was this just another reason to bring up your trip to dear ol’ England yet again. It’s like sitting through slides of someone’s vacation…

  3. Mab

    People who are house-bound and never get to go anywhere like hearing about other people’s travels. It is inspiring to know there is a great big world out there beyond the Batesburg-Leesville traffic circle.

  4. Steven Davis

    Mab – I’ll take your word for it, I’ve never been out that way.

    Let’s see, there’s a HUGE scandal up at Penn State… but what does Brad write about, some artist who made a bazillion fake sunflower seeds, dumped them on the floor and roped it off. The only people dumber than the artist are people who are likely paying to go see it. I can go out to any grain bin where I grew up and see the real thing and it’s something the farmer likely isn’t happy about.

    What next, pictures from the Columbia landfill?

  5. Mab

    Yes — picture that, Brad. There is also one in Swansea now. Downtown Swansea.


    The seeds are as graceful as the hands that wrought them.

    Shame on all of you cads for not being able to see the obvious.

  6. Steven Davis

    Mab – as many bushels of sunflowers as I’ve shoveled growing up, I guess I don’t “see the obvious”. You see art, I see a grain truck spill.

    But I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder, some see a crucifix in a jar of urine as art too.

    Steven “Cad” Davis

  7. Mab

    That wouldn’t be art, Steven. In biblical terms and times (i.e., the good old days) it would be properly classified as the handiwork of a reprobate.


    I hope Mr. Ai is not really a communist…

    From the BBC:

    “Sunflower seeds are a popular Chinese street snack but also hold another meaning for the artist.

    During the Cultural Revolution, propaganda images showed Chairman Mao as the sun and the mass of people as sunflowers turning towards him.

    ‘The seed is a household object but at the same time it is a revolutionary symbol,’ Mr Ai has said of his work.”

  8. Phillip

    @Steven: I wouldn’t exactly say Ai Weiwei is an artist “no one has ever heard of.” An artist no one has ever heard of is not one who can singlehandedly make a totalitarian superpower very jittery and nervous.

  9. Steven Davis

    Show of hands… prior to this article, other than Brad how many people have honestly heard of Ai Weiwei and can name another piece he’s done… without searching Google.

  10. Steven Davis

    @Mab – It was a topic years ago and was deemed “art”. So you don’t agree that it’s art, just like I don’t agree that a bunch of spilled fake sunflower seeds is art.

  11. SusanG

    Brad, I’m pretty sure it’s Mr. Ai. Chinese people don’t generally have a two-syllable last name, and so WeiWei would be his first name (well, it’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s basically it).

    Mr. Ai was also the artist involved with the Olympic Birds Nest Stadium, I think.

  12. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ Steven Davis–there are plenty of notable artists whom none of us have heard of, save perhaps Phillip, since he’s an actual notable artist himself…that’s not much of a criterion “whether Brad’s readers have heard of someone”….

  13. Mab

    My hand is raised — never heard of the guy before this post. But that is likely the intent of those real communist news networks.

    I picked up a copy of “The Innocents Abroad” last week at the library. What a great read. Mark Twain must be unsurpassed to this very day in his ability to put the English on English. And French and Portugese…

  14. Steven Davis

    @Mab – So I said show of hands for those who HAVE heard of this guy and could name a piece of his other artwork. You raised your hand and said you HAVE NEVER heard of this guy before…

  15. Brad

    I just did something a little different. Instead of simply not approving Steven’s comment, I edited it to delete the gratuitous insult aimed at another reader.

    If you don’t like that, Steven, I can just delete the whole thing. But this is not a place for trashing each other.

  16. Mab

    Steven DID say:

    “Show of hands… prior to this article, other than Brad how many people have honestly heard of Ai Weiwei”

    …six days ago.

    I stand — Achtung! — corrected.

  17. Steven Davis

    @Mab – I wrote:
    “Show of hands… prior to this article, other than Brad how many people have honestly heard of Ai Weiwei and can name another piece he’s done… without searching Google.”

    You wrote:
    “My hand is raised — never heard of the guy before this post. But that is likely the intent of those real communist news networks.”

    So what’s with the German/Nazi comment? A Japanese comment would have been much more appropriate.

  18. `Kathryn Fenner

    What German/Nazi comment (all Germans aren’t Nazis–indeed few are–and all Nazis aren’t German)?

    Why would Japanese have been more appropriate?


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