Chinese artist Ai Weiwei unveils giant London work

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Prominent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has filled the cavernous Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern gallery with over 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds which visitors are invited to walk over.

Covering 1,000 square meters at the east end of the converted power station, the installment called “Sunflower Seeds” is 10 centimeters deep and weighs a total of 150 tonnes.

The seeds appear at first to be identical, but are in fact painstakingly crafted and painted using traditional methods by 1,600 skilled artisans from the Chinese city of Jingdezhen.

Ai’s pieces are renowned for being labor-intensive, and Sunflower Seeds is no exception. On average, his collaborators produced over 60,000 replica seeds each, whereas Ai said he had contributed just three.

Sunflower Seeds is the 11th work in the annual Unilever Series, which invites artists from around the world to fill the giant hall located on the south bank of the River Thames.

Ai, 53, said the work was designed to reflect the concepts of individualism, mass production and craftsmanship. He also traced a connection to his use of social networking platform Twitter, which he saw as a tool to reach out to China’s youth.

“Every day (I spend) many hours with many different people (on Twitter),” he told Reuters at a press preview on Monday.

“All together there is shared information and many ideas, which creates something beautiful and important. Our time is about shared information and participation,” he added, speaking in English.

Unusually for a work of art in a gallery, visitors are allowed to walk over the seeds, and video screens have been set up to allow them to record video questions which are sent to the artist to respond to online.

Sunflowers are an important symbol in China, where Mao Zedong, the country’s revolutionary founder, was often depicted as the sun and the people as sunflowers in propaganda images during the Cultural Revolution.

According to the Tate Modern, 24 million people have seen the previous 10 installments of the series inaugurated in 2000, and it expects two million more to visit Sunflower Seeds on view between October 12, 2010 and May 2, 2011.

Reporting by Adam Jourdan