5 Unusual Items in Ai Weiwei’s Installations

From porcelain river crabs to Legos, Ai Weiwei uses unusual objects for his artworks. Here’s why the artist prefers odd commodities for his imaginative installations.

Apr 24, 2024By Ela Sutcu, MA Art History & Archaeology, BA Art History

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For internationally acclaimed artist and activist Ai Weiwei, art is inherently political. An outspoken critic of China’s government, the artist creates artworks that express his dissident voice as a Chinese expatriate. Ai Weiwei is known for his impressive installations displayed around the world. His projects are controversial, not only politically but materially. Ai Weiwei often employs unusual and (seemingly) found objects to construct his larger-than-life artworks. From sunflower seeds to illuminating lights, the artist assembles universal commodities in repetition to build his installations, an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades.


Ai Weiwei & the Readymade 

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Bicycle Wheel, by Marcel Duchamp, 1913. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Often associated with the early days of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp challenged how art was traditionally viewed at the turn of the twentieth century. A pioneer of the Dada movement, Duchamp ultimately coined the term readymade years after the 1913 debut of his Bicycle Wheel. The artwork was a single bicycle wheel and frame that the artist reoriented on a wooden stool and claimed as his own original and interactive work of art.


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Ai Weiwei holding sunflower seeds, 2010. Source: New York Times.


In defining what a readymade is, Duchamp argued that “an ordinary object [could be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” A readymade is often made from manufactured or commercial objects and is influenced by the artist’s vision. By declaring a bike wheel as his original artwork, Duchamp appropriated a commonhold commodity as his artistic medium and inevitably transformed what it meant to be an artist in the modern era. Nearly half a century later, Duchamp’s impact would influence artists like Andy Warhol and later, Ai Weiwei.


Duchamp & Warhol 

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Ai Weiwei at The Museum of Modern Art, 1987. Source: Interview Magazine.

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During his studies in America between 1983 and 1993, Ai Weiwei was getting inspired by bold modernists like Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp. Warhol appropriated icons from popular culture for his lively portraits and prints. Influenced by Dadaism and Pop Art, Ai Weiwei understands how to make art that is both absurd and socially conscious.


In fact, in an interview from 2010, Ai Weiwei deemed China’s bureaucracy as his readymade. He noted: “Duchamp had the bicycle wheel, Warhol had the image of Mao. I have a totalitarian regime. It is my readymade.”

Ai Weiwei clearly stakes his claim as a political artist here by placing himself within a lineage of innovative artists like Duchamp and Warhol. But beyond his conceptual readymade, some of the artist’s installations incorporate fun and unusual items that can be characterized as readymades in themselves. Ai Weiwei’s manipulation and repetition of a singular object in his elaborate installations transform the singular object’s original meaning when placed in dialogue with one another. Here are some examples of the unusual objects Weiwei has used in his art.


1. Sunflower Seeds 

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Sunflower Seeds, by Ai Weiwei, 2010. Source: Tate, London.


For Sunflower Seeds Ai Weiwei piled up over 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds into a large heap on the floor. Displayed at Tate Modern in 2010, Sunflower Seeds is a massive installation with varied meanings and interpretations. Depending on how closely you look at this work, the symbolism of the sunflower seeds can change. Each seed in Ai Weiwei’s installation was crafted by hand and painted to look like a real sunflower seed. The artist hired around 1600 Chinese artisans to mold clay into perfect seedlings and paint each piece with black glaze.


Sunflower seeds hold personal significance for the artist. A symbol Ai recalls from his childhood, sunflower seeds signify growth potential. As Ai Weiwei became older, he began to associate sunflower seeds with childhood poverty. Sunflower seeds were also used in Chinese propaganda during the Mao era, representing the citizens of China flourishing under a predominant image of Mao Zedong standing in as the sun. Ai Weiwei’s decision to display these sunflower seeds in bulk creates tension between the individual seed and the mass. Knowing Ai Weiwei’s method of constructing Sunflower Seeds emphasizes the delicate craftsmanship of a singular seed over the abundance of seeds in the installation.


2. Legos 

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Illumination, by Ai Weiwei, 2019. Source: Washington University in St. Louis


This artwork from 2019, Illumination, is a colorful reworking of Ai Weiwei’s famous photograph of his arrest in 2009. Standing at over ten feet tall, Illumination is a mirror selfie the artist took while being arrested by police in Chengdu, China. Ai was arrested for his political activism on behalf of Tan Zuoren, an activist who had investigated human rights issues from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. But before the artist could testify in court, police raided his hotel, beat him and other volunteers, and placed these outspoken activists under arrest. Consequently, Illumination became an artwork of political resistance against China’s demonstration of censorship.


After the devastating earthquake, activists like Ai Weiwei were determined to expose the Chinese government for its responsibility in the infrastructural disaster. Many believe that the earthquake was man-made, killing nearly 90,000 people in the Sichuan province. China’s government, however, was adamant about media censorship and acted when it came to preserving its political authority during this time. Thousands of schoolchildren were killed during the disaster. This was a piece of information that was suppressed in Chinese media and later exposed by foreign journalists.


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Detail of Illumination, by Ai Weiwei, 2019. Source: Ela Sutcu.


Considering this controversy surrounding the deaths of children during the earthquake, perhaps the most important and subtle aspect of Illumination is its medium. Ai Weiwei chose to use Lego bricks to rebuild his selfie ten years later. Thousands of tiny Legos are adhered on aluminum baseplates and mounted onto the wall. By using Legos, a recognizable commodity and toy made for children, Ai Weiwei transforms the playful medium into a sorrowful one and draws attention to the underlying story behind his selfie.


In what feels like an ode to Warhol’s pop portraits, Illumination is an oversaturated image of the artist with an understated message. It is the medium of Lego bricks that bridges the gap between the two. Furthermore, Ai Weiwei emphasizes primary colors in Illumination, organizing blue, red, and yellow blocks to reconstruct his selfie. Ai Weiwei prioritizes these colors in his work to further emphasize childhood innocence, representing the basic primary colors learned by kids in preschool. Despite its vibrant and playful medium, Illumination is a subtle and serious commentary against China’s censorship in the 21st century.


3. Lights 

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Cube Light, by Ai Weiwei, 2009. Source: The New York Times.


Ai Weiwei used another recognizable commodity to construct his installation in 2009. Cube Light was installed at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden between 2012 and 2013 for his first major retrospective in America. The artist used thousands of glass crystals to capture light and fill the thirteen-foot-tall cube. Supported by stainless steel framing and electrical wiring, Cube Light employs a common object to build what seems to be an infinity of light.


Each light in Ai Weiwei’s Cube Light is amplified by another, exerting a radiating force of energy in the middle of the gallery room. Once again, we arrive at the concept of the individual vs. the mass. But this time, Cube Light can attest to the power of the collective. Forming an unwavering sculpture of light, every light in the artist’s installation harmonizes and assembles to form a glowing cube for large audiences to witness. Shedding light on symmetry and space, Cube Light draws attention to the overall form and efficacy of the cube. The installation can be seen as a metaphor for and microcosm of the white cube gallery space popularized in modern art.


4. Crabs 

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He Xie, by Ai Weiwei, 2010. Source: The New York Times.


Ai Weiwei’s 2010 installation, He Xie, is similar to his Sunflower Seeds from the same year. Crowded together in a single large pile, porcelain river crabs are scattered across an art gallery floor. Painted in orange, brown, and beige colors, each river crab was individually crafted by Ai Weiwei’s studio to look life-like. Once again Ai Weiwei approaches the idea of the individual and the collective with a new medium of choice. About 3200 realistic-looking river crabs were created for this installation which made its debut during the artist’s retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum in 2012. Just as sunflower seeds are politically symbolic in China, river crabs hold political importance as well.


The title of this work is a homophone that emphasizes Ai’s political outspokenness in the 21st century. Aside from being a seasonal delicacy in Chinese cuisine, river crabs symbolize the politics in China surrounding media censorship. In Chinese he xie means harmony but sounds like river crab. The Chinese Communist Party used the term harmonious society in 2004 as the government started to regulate internet censorship. As a result, the term he xie is commonly known as a euphemism for censorship in China.


5. Ai Weiwei Uses Bikes 

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Forever Bicycles, by Ai Weiwei, 2014. Source: The Contemporary Austin, Austin.


Forever Bicycles made an appearance at The Contemporary Austin in 2014 but is one of the artist’s most famous readymade installations today. In this outdoor sculpture, the artist uses a universally recognizable object, a standard bike, to build his artwork. Like Cube Light from 2009, Ai Weiwei multiplies a single object to add volume and power to his installation. An extravagant homage to Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, Forever Bicycles is an ongoing project for the artist.


The form and size of Forever Bicycles changes with each iteration. But for his project in Austin, Texas, Ai Weiwei used 1,200 bikes to construct an impressive archway for his viewers to walk under. Bicycles continue to be a widely popular mode of transportation around the world, especially in China. The title Forever Bicycles refers to a popular brand in China known for manufacturing bikes during the artist’s childhood. The company is called Forever. Therefore, Forever Bicycles pokes fun at the tagline made in China since Ai Weiwei brought over a thousand bikes from China to America for his ongoing project. By creating an infinity of bicycles, Ai Weiwei also confronts the overwhelming reality of boundless manufacturing today.

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By Ela SutcuMA Art History & Archaeology, BA Art HistoryEla is an art historian, artist, and contributing writer based in St. Louis. Her research interests include modern sculpture, contemporary political and eco art, and ancient art and culture of the Mediterranean and Middle East. She recently graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with her MA in Art History & Archaeology, and she holds a BA in Art History from Saint Louis University where she minored in Italian and Film Studies.