Galleri Faurschou, Copenhagen and Beijing
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Exactly concurrent with Ai Wewei's already legendary installation at the Tate Modern in London in 2010, Kui Hua Zi consists of one ton of the artist's celebrated ceramic sunflower seeds. It is representative of one of the most notorious and talked-about artistic enterprises of the twenty-first century and is intrinsically related to the masterpiece of China's most important conceptual artist working today. This work unites many of the themes and formal concerns of Ai's work to date, in a sculptural phenomenon that is at once singular and complex in form and meaning. Throughout his career, Ai has sought to reconcile China's artistic legacy with its contemporary art practice, exploring traditional techniques in a contemporary language, to revive the skills that made China's artists and craftsman the envy of the world until Mao all but stamped out their traditions in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
The Kui Hua Zi are made using materials and techniques which have been refined in China and passed down from generation to generation, perfecting themes of precedent and tradition that have permeated Ai's oeuvre, such as the sculptures made of huanghuali wood with exquisite nail-free joinery techniques typical of the Ming dynasty. Made by the skilled craftsmen and women of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, a specialist region famed for producing porcelain of the highest quality for the Imperial Court, each individual seed is carefully handcrafted and painted using the traditional method which necessitates thirty stages of production. Like Alighiero Boetti who in making his Mappa and Tutto series employed the weavers of Peshawar and Kabul, Ai takes on the role akin to that of a film director, orchestrating over a thousand skilled craftsmen for whom the Tate commission provided valuable income for a period of years. This in itself brings a key social aspect to the sculpture, something which is never far from Ai's work, as witnessed most clearly in Fairytale, his project for Documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007, where he paid for 1,001 Chinese followers of his blog to visit Germany as a happening.
When we first encounter this quiet sculpture, which can be installed either in a conical form or as a carpet, a viewer familiar with Western contemporary art might think of the sculptures of Felix Gonzalez-Torres made of sweets which the viewer is invited to touch and even eat. As one gets closer to Ai's sculpture, however, the realization that these ostensibly edible seeds are in fact made of heavy, cold porcelain releases new layers of meaning. The knowledge that each has been individually handmade and the time and effort involved in the laborious process gradually sinks in. While the quantity and scale echoes the scale of industrial mass production, referencing the cheap goods consumed by the West and fabricated cheaply in China, the precious nature of the material and its status as fine art force a reappraisal.
In China, the sunflower seed is loaded with symbolism. It is first and foremost a street snack and something to be enjoyed socially. It is a particular skill in China to shuck a sunflower seed using the gap between the two front teeth. During Ai's childhood, piles of empty husks on the floor would be the ephemeral remains of social activity or, most likely, a record of a meeting of the local communist party. Indeed for his generation, the sunflower motif takes on a much more potent significance. In official posters and portraits, Chairman Mao depicted himself throughout his reign as the sun and all his subjects like sunflowers, whose heads turn to follow him wherever he went, in subordination and to bask in his glory. During his Great Leap Forward, from 1958-1961 and beyond, in which Mao set excessively high production targets for collective farms in order to pay off arms debts with Moscow by exporting grain, some thirty million are conservatively estimated to have starved to death. In these penurious times, just a pocket full of sunflower seeds could make the difference between life and death for Chinese agricultural families. Seen here as a giant pile, measured by weight, the Kui Hua Zi allude to the unattainable agricultural quotas of Mao's regime which saw much needed agricultural goods shipped outside China's borders at unfathomable human cost. At the same time, they represent the most basic needs of the calorie-deficient populace and metaphorically they suggest human compassion. As such, Kui Hua Zi is an incredibly stirring sculpture and one which has already become an icon of this important sculptor's oeuvre.
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