Juliet Bingham, Curator, Tate Modern
"Ai Weiwei's Unilever Series commission, Sunflower Seeds, is a beautiful, poignant and thought-provoking sculpture. The thinking behind the work lies in far more than just the idea of walking on it. The precious nature of the material, the effort of production and the narrative and personal content create a powerful commentary on the human condition. Sunflower Seeds is a vast sculpture that visitors can contemplate at close range on Level 1 or look upon from the Turbine Hall bridge above. Each piece is a part of the whole, a commentary on the relationship between the individual and the masses. 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?"
It is well known that the installation originally permitted people to walk around these porcelin seeds, but that due to the health risk posed by the dust, this came to an end rapidly. I'm sure it would have been beautiful to walk amidst them, but the fact that seeds were taken from the installation seemed to add an additional layer of complexity to the work.
To the extent that the art work is a motif for the West's reliance on the East's low-cost industrial labour force, the pillaging of seeds by Westerners reinforces the notion that this is an exploitative relationship. Yet, given the pride taken by the village's people in the crafting of ceramics, this unavoidable inequality still has integrity, meaning and value for a community that otherwise would have no source of income, as was true of this particular village, whose ceramic work was reaching its end.