Saturday, 19 February 2011

Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern: poetry from art for kids

Last Monday I gave a talk to ninety 11-12 year olds at Lingfield Notre Dame School in Sussex, preparing them for their visit to Tate Modern the next day, when they were to write poems from art. While I was making a slideshow for them and researching for my workshop I fell in love with Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds. I'm not sure what else to call it, but it does mean that I'm working on a poem about them, which is fun to do, even if it's no good.

I spent a day at the Tate, walking around the perimeters of the installation, looking down on them from the bridge, and watching the film of how he got a whole town in China to hand-paint a hundred million of the porcelain seeds in their husks. And wishing I'd seen the installation while you could still walk over or even bury yourself in them. En route to Sussex I hoped to find some sunflowers but it was Valentine's Day so the only flowers at the station were roses. But I did bring in a 800G bag of Dakota striped sunflower seeds, bought at my local Turkish international supermarket. The real seeds are huge, but Ai's are bigger than life and in the Turbine Hall they have an electrifying presence.

I passed the seeds around and told the kids the story of how everyone in the town of Jingdezhen (which once made porcelain for imperial China) made the 100 million seeds over a period of two years. Also, how Ai had said that "In China, when we grew up, we had nothing...But for even the poorest people, the treat or the treasure we'd have would be the sunflower seeds in everyone's pockets." I asked them to keep a few of the seeds in their pockets.

They were a lively, excitable group, and in the space of one and a half hours, they all wrote three poems each, in response to various artworks at Tate. We started by playing the game of Surreal Definitions which creates instant surrealism, and instant metaphors, such as "a mirror is a pool of silver light", "the sun is something delicious in your mouth", some of them believable, some crazy, and some very funny. One boy's ended up as "a boyfriend is where most women keep their money". His neighbour had defined "a purse" then passed his definition on, so that the definition of "where most women keep their money" got joined to the noun "a boyfriend". And so on.

Another big hit was using Moniza Alvi's poem 'I Would Like to be a Dot in a Painting by Miro' as a template for their poems when I projected Miro paintings for them to pretend to be a shape in. They had very spirited responses to this, and saw all kinds of shapes – boomerangs, arrows, hexagons, and told imaginative stories about their relationship to other shapes in the paintings.

In one week my next Poetry from Art course (for adults) will start at Tate Modern, with two sessions in the wonderful Gabriel Orozco (see a previous post), then one in Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds. Poems from the course will be published on the Tate Modern website in April. The art and English teachers of Lingfield school also hope to eventually publish a book of poems and drawings from the schoolkids' visit to the Tate and I'm looking forward to getting my copy. Meanwhile, here are some images of the sunflower seeds, fake and real, and a sunflower with the seeds packed in golden Fibonacci spirals.


  1. I loved this installation too. For me it was also as much about the story of the creative process. So glad to see you inspiring young minds!

  2. Hi Bernadette,

    Lovely to hear from you. I agree, the way they were made and the film of the process was one of the main things that I found so exciting about the work. And Ai's warmth and accessibility.

    Hope you are well and writing away!


  3. Still writing and helping out with a Poetry Slam this Friday night. Going to lots of local poetry events. Wish I could come to some of yours - the next time I am in the UK.....

  4. A wonderful post. What I noticed about China was the way people loved each other, from my observations, I saw a purity that I believed was a myth in this world. When I would walk among the ruins of the Ming Palace I would just watch the people and realize why one man was able to have such love and compassion for his nation, having a desire for their freedom to value life. 1911 was such a critical year for China, and 100 years later, we see that the world is in the same place. Many are unaware they are still enslaved when a government is more powerful than its own people and fails to serve the people it has failed them.

  5. A beautiful post; how sad Weiwei is being constrained. What a teaching for children.