Ai Weiwei. Chinese porcelain
Porcelain is a kind of white, translucent, high-quality ceramic, invented in China in the 7th century. Porcelain is made from a mixture of kaolin clay and feldspar with quartz, through firing the ready-made product. It is characterized by low water absorption, high mechanical strength, high resistance to chemical agents, and impermeability to liquids and gases. Porcelain was called “white gold” because it replaced gold as a royal gift, reaching prices comparable to ore. Porcelain was invented in China at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty (618–907). As early as the 3rd or 4th century AD, glazed stoneware dishes were being made. Technical skills and the use of kaolin and feldspar in the production of stoneware, led to the invention of “white gold” in the 1st half of the 7th century. Chinese porcelain is more fusible than European, because it contains more feldspar. Initially, it was used to make thick-walled or small dishes, decorated with coloured glazes and engraved ornaments.
Ai Weiwei uses the traditional material and technology associated with China in an intelligent manner. In a town of Jingdezhen, located a thousand kilometres from Beijing, he started the project, “Sunflower Seeds.” People from this part of China have for centuries been engaged in the production of the finest porcelain for the emperor’s court, becoming famous nationwide. The tradition passed down from generation to generation could not even be destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. However, currently, the local community is struggling with huge unemployment and poverty. Ai Weiwei’s initiative revived the local labour market. Over 1.500 craftsmen were employed to produce porcelain seeds. Their production technology had remained unchanged for centuries: starting from the extraction of quartz and feldspar, mixing with kaolin, through firing in furnaces, to hand painting. In October 2010, the London Tate Modern exhibited Sunflower Seeds [Sunflower Seeds]. The art installation, prepared for five years, consists of over one hundred million hand-made and hand-painted porcelain sunflower “seeds.” They were produced by more than 1,600 inhabitants of Jingdezhen, a town famous for producing porcelain. The local people have produced porcelain for the emperors for centuries, but today unemployment there is continually rising. Ai Weiwei had cooperated with small factories producing porcelain in Jingdezhen before; his initiative significantly revived the local labour market. The effort and commitment of one thousand six hundred craftsmen in fact served to create something totally useless. The seeds were scattered on the 3.400 square meters of the Tate Modern turbine hall. In the words of the artist, a walk on the seeds was supposed to allow a mixture of mass consumption, big industry, and home production, which characterises today’s China, to be experienced.
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