Seeds of Dissent: The Detention of Ai Weiwei

The disappearance of the artist behind "Sunflower Seeds" is creating a furor in the international art community.

— By | April 19, 2011

Free Ai Weiwei

Posters protesting Ai Weiwei's detention scattered over his "Sunflower Seeds" installation at Tate Modern (photo: Cai Yuan)

“Sunflower Seeds” is an installation art piece composed of one hundred million (100,000,000) porcelain sunflower seeds raked into a carpet across Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Each kiln-baked “seed” was hand-painted by a resident of Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain production capital. From afar, the work resembles a field of grey.

The piece’s creator, artist Ai Weiwei, was arrested and detained by Chinese police on April 3. The government has held him incommunicado ever since, creating a furor in the international art community.

According to the trusty state-run media, Ai Weiwei has confessed to the crimes for which he is being held: pornography, bigamy, tax evasion. Those who have followed Ai’s career as an artist and public figure, however, see this as official retaliation for his increasingly strident critiques of the Chinese government. In an interview with Dan Rather Reports just before his arrest, Ai stated that he considered on a daily basis whether he had the strength to endure detention. (Ai’s own father, renowned poet Ai Qing, was beaten severely and detained for years in a re-education camp by Communist authorities who disapproved of his politics). Fellow Beijing artist Hao Guang said that Ai Weiwei had “known for a long time this day was coming.

Ai standing in the rubble of his demolished studio.

This January, Chinese authorities razed Ai’s Shanghai studio. The previous November, Ai was placed under house arrest when he announced he was throwing a “river crab feast” at his studio in sly protest of the government’s threatened demolition. Crowds of people showed up to the party anyways, despite Ai’s absence.

The notion of a “river crab feast” refers to a pun popular among Chinese internet dissidents. In Mandarin, the phrase “river crab” is a homophone of the phrase for “harmony.” The Chinese government describes its censorship and web-filtering efforts as “harmonizing” society; “harmonious society” is a catchphrase of the current regime. Dissidents have therefore created cartoons and songs depicting “river crabs” as evil little creatures that go around destroying fertile grounds. (More detail on the epic battle between the “grass mud horse” and the “river crab” here and here).

No outdoor sports can be more elegant than throwing stones at autocracy; no melees can be more exciting than those in cyber space – Ai Weiwei, via Twitter

Like his Egyptian activist-blogger counterparts, Ai Weiwei is active on the Internet and a firm believer in the liberating potential of the web.  He tweets, blogs, and uses a variety of aliases on microblog host to skirt Chinese censors that regularly block him from the site. After the deadly earthquakes in Sichuan, Ai used the web to launch a networked citizens investigation into the number of deaths resulting from collapsed (read: poorly constructed) schools. When he was beaten by police in the course of his investigation, he tweeted photos of himself being treated for a brain hemorrhage from his hospital bed.

Ai Weiwei, "So Sorry" (2010) (installation)

Ai’s investigation ultimately resulted in an installation art piece entitled “So Sorry.” The piece is constructed out of colorful children’s backpacks arranged on a building façade built by Adolf Hitler in Munich. The 9,000 backpacks spell out “She lived happily for seven years in the world”  — a quote from a mother whose daughter died when her school collapsed during the earthquake. The piece is made to stand in contrast to the Chinese government’s refusal to give a full accounting of deaths resulting from the Sichuan earthquake in the wake of the disaster. With the contributions of volunteers, Ai published the findings of his investigations on his blog, along with some angry missives directed towards what he saw as public officials’ exploitation of the disaster for propaganda.

“Sunflower Seeds” also references the power of the Internet, in Ai’s vision. Ai invited Tate viewers to engage him with questions and comments about the piece online. In an interview with the Telegraph, Ai noted that the number of “sunflower seeds” used in the piece — one hundred million — is roughly a quarter of the total number of Chinese Internet users.  As reviewer Richard Dorment put it: “Without the internet, Ai is saying, his countrymen are destined to be crushed underfoot by rulers who do not see – and do not want to see the individual within the mass. But with four hundred million people in touch with each other through the internet, who knows what may happen in the future?”

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It is interesting to view “Sunflower Seeds” installed in the West because the piece simultaneously triggers all of the stock narratives used in Western media to talk about modern China.  These templates can be summarized as:

  • The “OMG horrors of totalitarianism” narrative (of declining popularity, generally speaking);
  • The “OMG horrors of capitalism” narrative (which can be economically protectionist, anti-capitalist, or environmentalist in nature); and
  • The “New China is so fun with its kitsch and avant garde entertainments” narrative (oft overheard in bars).

Ai has embedded an anti-totalitarian message into the piece, and so reviewers will be inclined to mention the political context, triggering narrative #1. Although Ai intended for viewers to walk on top of the “sunflower seed” carpet, the Tate barred visitors from doing so after it discovered that the porcelain dust was creating a health hazard and there was lead in the hand-painted “seeds” — those developments and the mass-produced quality of the work trigger narrative #2. Finally, Ai is an icon in China’s contemporary art scene, and so an exhibit of his work will naturally trigger narrative #3. And yet Ai brings the weight of history to the work in a way these narratives typically can not.

New Yorkers protest Ai's detention.

Ai’s detention similarly brings together disparate groups of concerned folks.  Human rights advocates are concerned because Ai’s detention comes as part of a broader crackdown on dissidents following this spring’s call for a “jasmine revolution.” They see Ai’s arrest as a calculated message from the Chinese government to its people that no one — no matter his fame or international connections — is immune. But the disappearance of Chinese human rights lawyers and activists has not and probably will never disturb the enjoyment of arts-enthusiasts and dilettante expats satisfied to witness Beijing’s blooming arts scene. On the other hand, the disappearance of “China’s Andy Warhol” is bound to turn some otherwise-blinkered heads.  The disappearance of the man who  designed the Bird’s Nest stadium that formed the centerpiece of the Beijing Olympics — that will raise international attention in circles where even the detention of writer Liu Xiaobo would not give pause.

Ai Weiwei, "Study of Perspective - Forbidden City" (1995) (photograph)

Chinese authorities have stated that they are “baffled” by the international uproar over Ai Weiwei’s detention. They shouldn’t feign bemusement. It is conventional wisdom that rock n’ roll brought down the Iron Curtain. Here again, popular culture may tear down another curtain: this time, one of apathy.  It is an apathy the government has intentionally cultivated through years of  investment in exchange programs and scholarships, in Expos and Olympics, in profit opportunities for foreign businesses and jobs for wayward young Americans. It is probably also an apathy built by time — which is to (sadly) say, the Chinese government’s political repression may have outlasted our attention spans. But for this moment, at least, the Internet, art, and artists’ camaraderie have pulled aside that curtain to place on view for the public the human reality it conceals.


The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei is on display at Tate Modern through May 2, 2011.
The Divine Comedy, an exhibition by Olafur Eliasson, Tomás Saraceno, and Ai Weiwei is on display at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design through May 17, 2011.

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