Ai Weiwei transparent communicator: Interview Tate’s Juliet Bingham – Part I


As Ai Weiwei announces the cancellation of his first Chinese solo, which was due to be held at UCCA (Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) in Beijing, we delve into one of his most audience-arresting artworks to date, Sunflower Seeds (2010). Guest writer Pippa Dennis interviews Tate curator Juliet Bingham about the installation and its supporting art programme.

Ai Weiwei throws his 'Sunflower Seeds' (2010). Image from

Ai Weiwei throws his 'Sunflower Seeds' (2010). Image from

Click here to visit the Tate’s webpage on Sunflower Seeds for images, videos, poster purchases and an opportunity to ask Ai Weiwei those burning questions.

Can you describe the remit for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall Unilever series?

Unilever has supported Tate’s ambitions to invite leading international artists to make new work for the Turbine Hall since Tate opened in 2000…. Weiwei is the eleventh artist in the series and he is the first artist from the Asia Pacific region to be commissioned. This is really exciting for us because we are also … expanding our collection, expertise and research into not just the Asia Pacific region but the Middle East, Latin America and Africa, [all] part of Tate’s ambition to become a more global institution.

Can you describe how Tate came to choose Ai Weiwei for the Sunflower Seeds (2010) commission?

We are always in discussion about the artists we would like to work with [and] Weiwei is an artist we have a long history … with. We acquired his piece Table and Pillar in 2007 with the support of APAC (Asia Pacific Aquisitions Committee).

Editor’s note: Ai Weiwei also exhibited work in “The Real Thing” at Tate Liverpool in 2007.

We felt that he would really enjoy the challenge of the Turbine Hall space. He comes from such a multi-disciplinary practice; he has worked on a large-scale before and … is an architect with over sixty realised projects. I think it can sometimes be quite a daunting task for artists to take on the challenge of the Turbine Hall so we felt that it would be an appropriate commission to offer to Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei and Fake Studio, 'Working Progress (Fountain of Light)', 2007, installation inspired by inspired by Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919). Image from

Ai Weiwei and Fake Studio, 'Working Progress (Fountain of Light)', 2007, installation inspired by inspired by Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919). Image from

When did you start the dialogue with Ai Weiwei for the Sunflower Seeds commission?

We first spoke to him a number of years ago about the project, probably about three years ago. In 2006, he produced a small sculptural work entitled Sunflower Seeds and testing for this [2010] Sunflower Seeds started a couple of years ago. [The seeds] have been in production for a long time which you can see more detail in the video that accompanies the piece. [See video below.]

This is your first Turbine Hall commission. As a curator, what are the things you have found particularly interesting working on this project with Ai Weiwei?

It is really interesting to see how every artist has approached the Turbine Hall in such a different way, … [from] Anish Kapoor’s work, in its sculptural form that directly addresses monumentality in its scale, to Bruce Nauman who worked with sound to create an audio sculpture so there was nothing visible in the space…. In a way, the project could have gone in any number of directions and I think it’s really quite beautiful and poetic that [Weiwei] has chosen such a simple small object, the common sunflower seed, which [contrasts with] the monumentality of the space.

He has created this immense project, the effort of thousands of people over a very long period of time. This is the thing that really challenges your perception of space and … enhances the monumentality of the Turbine Hall. At the same time it takes things down to a very minute detail, which is spectacular but also extremely subtle.

Anish Kapoor's steel and PVC Turbine Hall commission, 2002. Image from

Anish Kapoor's steel and PVC Turbine Hall commission, 2002. Image from

Can you talk a little more about the small 2006 sculpture Sunflower Seeds and how this metamorphosed into the monumental and iconic 2010 piece?

I think that it was in 1995 that [Ai Weiwei] dropped the Han Dynasty urn [Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995)] and when he first came back from New York in the early 1990s he spent a lot of time with his brother, who was an antiques dealer, scouring the markets of Beijing. This interest in very early forms of human activity and in craft based on historical techniques and in the form of pottery itself, and more specifically porcelain, is something that runs through his practice.

That plays on a lot of the other themes in his work such as authenticity, the nature of value, and how you confer value to objects. The piece Sunflower Seeds uses a very humble every day item and makes use of historical techniques that are specific to China and the region of Jingdezhen, in particular.

In 2006, he made one metric ton of seeds [and these] were displayed on the floor in a conical form, a … sculptural piece that you could walk around and view from all sides. They were just tipped in place, there was no supporting structure…. The work for Tate has grown out of Weiwei’s previous interest in the material [used in the 2006 piece] and its connotations of production, economics and scale. The idea of mass production, but using very manual … pre-industrial techniques, is very interesting in relation to China and China’s economic power….

Ai Weiwei, 'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn', 1995, triptych, b/w-prints. Image from

Ai Weiwei, 'Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn', 1995, triptych, b/w-prints. Image from

Ai Weiwei is an extraordinary communicator, using his blog and now Twitter to connect with a wide audience. How did this aid (or hinder) the dialogue between yourself and artist during the development of Sunflower Seeds?

In terms of communication, Weiwei is so transparent and open. Obviously, we met in Beijing and we had lots of contact and discussions about the project but to really understand what he is doing you have to keep up with this other media. I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t been part of Twitter but now I’ve joined it because of Weiwei.

[His social media activity] certainly [offers] an interesting insight into how prolific he is, in terms of his social and political aspirations. Actually, it was quite important for Tate … to develop an online project … related to Sunflower Seeds and his practice, so we created the One-to-One with the Artist video kiosk in the Turbine Hall. Visitors can upload a message directly to the artist via video once they’ve seen the exhibition.

These videos are then posted online, onto a specific micro-site on the Tate’s website, and the artist responds to selected videos. We now have over 4,000 videos online. For Tate, that is a really innovative initiative and I think it involves the public in quite a thoughtful way; they engage with the work but also have this unique opportunity to engage directly with the artist who is responding, in person, often giving quite long and considered responses.

Screenshot of Tate's One-to-One with the Artist. Image from

Screenshot of Tate's One-to-One with the Artist. Image from

Have there been any responses from Ai Weiwei that particularly stand out?

He answered a question about why he specifically tweets in Chinese and [his answer] was quite telling because he said that in a country where freedom of expression is quite limited he feels that it is very important to communicate to the younger generation and encourage the younger generation to create their own knowledge base.

I think in some ways, perhaps in the West, certain commentators have lost faith in the potential of the Internet. Originally it was thought of as being a great liberator against uni-directional broadcasting…. I think there is now some skepticism because the Internet has been commandeered, in some cases, by people who continue to use it in a very one-directional way.

Ai Weiwei is really an advocate for the potential of the Internet in China and although there are restrictions in place there are still ways to share information and communicate. I think [this] is very important for him, for people to try to take some personal responsibility and find out information that can change or help to change society.

Ai Weiwei’s work often contains themes of political and social commentary. How did you respond to this? Was this something you had to consider in the commissioning of him for the Unilever series?

His work has always been quite radical. In New York, he was making art that was totally against the prevailing Neo-Expressionism painting that was being made at the time. He was creating Dada assemblages. When he returned to China he started creating works like the [photographic series] “Study of Perspective”, where he raises his middle finger to various cultural or political institutions, and like Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn and other works that were rectified or assisted ready-mades. There is this provocative thread.

While he was in New York he was heavily involved in the student protests, the Tompkins Square Park [Police Riot of 1988], about development issues in certain neighborhoods, and also in AIDS demonstrations. I suppose his more overtly political and social work could be seen during the Sichuan earthquake disaster when he launched a citizens investigation into claims that corruption had led to badly built schools, which meant that during the earthquake thousands and thousands of children perished.

2006 version of Ai Weiwei's 'Sunflower seeds'. Image from

2006 version of Ai Weiwei's 'Sunflower seeds'. Image from

The piece at the Haus der Kunst, where he had a solo show, had a huge pixilated lament made up of children’s backpacks which spelt out “She lived happily in this world for seven years,” something that a mother had said about her dead daughter. There isn’t a distinction between his life and his work. I guess he is following on in this Duchampian mode, seeing himself as a ready-made and taking contemporary Chinese society and politics as a ready-made.

Tate is not a politically campaigning organisation; our responsibility is to follow what artists are doing and give them a platform for their work. In that sense, we felt it was important for us to work with Weiwei. We were aware that his work is very diverse and has taken a turn towards the social and political in recent years.

Were there any official Chinese representatives at the opening of Sunflower Seeds?

For every exhibition Tate holds an international artist we always invite the appropriate embassies and foreign cultural representatives, as we did with Weiwei. But I am not sure if anyone attended the opening.

Editor’s note: The announcement of Ai’s show cancellation hit the papers early this week. Here’s what was reported on France24 on Monday:

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei said Monday he cancelled his first large solo exhibition in mainland China after organisers told the outspoken government critic the timing was too politically sensitive. Ai, one of China’s most famous artists and a bold political activist, told AFP his show was due to start in March at UCCA, a gallery founded by Belgian collector Guy Ullens in a Beijing art district. ‘The timing is sensitive and politically they feel it is not suitable at the moment,’ said the 53-year-old. He said organisers wanted to postpone the show but he decided to cancel it instead.

Want to read more on Ai Weiwei? Sign up for our weekly newsletter to catch part two of this interview, due to hit your inbox next Thursday.

Close-up on Ai Weiwei's ceramic installation 'Sunflower Seeds' (2010). Image from

Close-up of Ai Weiwei's ceramic installation 'Sunflower Seeds' (2010). Image from

Guest writer Pippa Dennis is a Chinese art specialist based in London. She has an MA in Art History and spent ten years making documentaries for the BBC before living in Shanghai and working at Eastlink Gallery. She subsequently set up Asia Art Forum, an educational platform aimed at promoting the understanding of Asian contemporary art. Click here to read more articles by this contributor.

Editorial disclaimer – The opinions and views expressed by guest writers do not necessarily reflect those of Art Radar Asia.


Related Topics: Ai Weiwei, Chinese artists, installation art, interviews, museum shows

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