Saturday, April 16, 2011

Social Media, Protest, and Art: The Case of Ai Weiwei

"Sunflower Seeds" by Ai Weiwei at the Tate Modern

Many of us at @Platea were stunned by the arrest and detainment of Ai Weiwei in Beijing earlier this month.  That Ai Weiwei was taken as part of an ongoing clamp-down on citizens critical of their government only makes it worse.  Ai Weiwei embraces the important function of art to comment on culture and sees the potential for social media not only to make art but as significant activists' tools.

"Study in Perspective" (1995) by Ai Weiwei (via
His critique of the Chinese government is pointed, especially when holding bureaucrats responsible for cutting corners in public construction in Sichuan Province where an earthquake in 2008 resulted in the deaths of at least 5335 children. This critique has found expression in interviews, installations, video, street protests, and postings on social media.  He has suffered grievous abuse at the hands of the Chinese police before, but his voice still rises in the name of social justice.

I could say more, but there are plenty of sites to find information about his work and his arrest.  Try herehere, here, and here, for example.

257 Hours.  Photo by Jonny Gray
What interests me and seems relevant to @Platea is an emerging social media protest concerning his continued detainment. It doesn't have a name.  It doesn't have a central organizing body.  It's not my idea.  It is not a project that is sponsored by @Platea.  Rather, it is the kind of organic eruption of solidarity with artists and activists that is, potentially, at the core of social networking.  Around the world, artists and activists are marking the hours of Ai Weiwei's disappearance at the hands of the state by filling jars or other containers with sunflower seeds.  Periodically, these artists post pictures of the jar with a count of the seeds/hours to Flickr, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, etc. accounts.

Porcelain sunflower seed via Pascale Petit's Blog.
Using sunflower seeds in this protest is a direct reference to Ai Weiwei's recent installation at the Tate Modern gallery in London.  Sunflower Seeds is made up of millions of individually crafted porcelain sunflower seeds produced in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen.  Consider it, in part, a commentary on the relationship between unique individuals and the masses. 

And so, the sunflower seed becomes a potent symbol for protesting the disappearance of Ai Weiwei.  Marking his hours of detainment with seeds via social media demonstrates the power of a networked mass to defend the rights of individual freedom, to speak in support of human rights and social justice for all.  It is important to note that these seizures and detainments are happening all over China, that Ai Weiwei is not alone. 

281 Hours.  Photo by Jonny Gray.
So, if there are folks following @Platea concerned about the plight of Chinese freedom activists and Ai Weiwei in particular, I invite you to join the collective in defense of outspoken individuals.  Collect sunflower seeds in a jar or other container of your choosing.  Collect as many as there have been hours since Ai Weiwei's detainment (he was seized at 8:04 am April 3, local time Beijing).  Post a picture of your seeds to whatever social media account you use most often.  If posting to Twitter, include the hashtags #aiww or #aiweiwei. 

China is a growing world leader with significant cultural and economic power.  But with great power comes not only great responsibility but also accountability.  Ai Weiwei is not on trial; China is.


  1. Thanks for this post and getting the word out to others that are looking for a way to articulate their concern.

  2. Thanks we'll link to this post from our blog and facebook page.