Sunflower Seeds & Censorship – Chinese Artist & Activist Ai WeiWei



Chinese multi media artist and social activist Ai Weiwei created one of the most important and beautiful pieces of cultural art to date.
His moving exhibition “Sunflower Seeds” [photo above-Tate Modern 2010] opened at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall in London in October 2010 and closed on May 3, 2011.  “Sunflower Seeds” consists of ONE HUNDRED MILLION hand painted porcelain ‘seeds’ laid out and blanketing the floor space.  The seeds were created in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen and painted by 1,600 artisans.  Jingdezhen has been famous for its porcelain production for 1,700 years.
Ai Weiwei commissioned the work as a commentary on Chinese industry, famine, mass consumption and collective work.  Please watch the stunning video below to learn all about the creation of this powerful project.

This all sounds very worthwhile to China, right?  Well, the Chinese government disagrees.  They believe that Ai Weiwei’s art as cultural commentary is subversive and dangerous, due to his position that artists have a responsibility to make moral judgment and speak out against propaganda.  He has been a vocal opponent to China’s handling of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and posited anti-Olympic sentiments in 2007 and 2008.
Ai Weiwei [photo from Wikipedia]
His blog, which posted articles supporting the investigation into student casualties in the ’08 Sichuan earthquake was shut down by Chinese authorities in May 2009.  He was consequently beaten by police in August 2009 for trying to testify for one of the earthquake investigators.  He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, which required surgery, and is believed to be the result of the police brutality.
On April 3, 2011 Ai Weiwei was arrested in China prior to boarding a flight to Hong Kong because “his departure procedures were incomplete”.  This government statement was followed by another on April 7 stating that Ai was arrested due to an investigation for alleged economic crimes.  Ai’s assistant Wen Tao, his accountant Liu Zhenggang along with his driver Zhang Jingsong were all disappeared.

In April, 2011, fellow artist Hamish Fulton staged a performance art piece at the Tate in London, as an appeal for freedom for Ai Weiwei. A very powerful statement in support of freedom of expression.

[photo below is of the Tate Modern which posted a large sign on its building appealing for the release of Ai].
After 81 days in detention, Ai WeiWei was released by the Chinese government and the national news agency Xinhua reported that Ai was released “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes” and a chronic illness.

The Xinhua report on Ai’s release said: “The decision comes also in consideration of the fact that Ai has repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded, police said. The Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, a company Ai controlled, was found to have evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents, police said.”

Ai WeiWei is still living in Beijing and has installed security cameras and studio webcams so that his supporters -and the police – can keep an eye on him to ensure he is watched 24 hours a day. He is co-designing this year’s pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in London, but it is not clear whether he will be able to attend the opening in June. “Every day I think, ‘this will be the day I will be taken in again’,”he said.


The Chinese government rules with an iron fist – any dissent is crushed swiftly and completely.  Censorship is widespread and thorough, destroying any ideas or imagery that go against the government’s views.
This is obviously an extreme example, but here’s our question:  is censorship of an artist ever ok?  What is the purpose of art, if it is censored? Where do you stand?