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Artist Ai Weiwei fills gallery with 100 million sunflower seeds

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Chinese artist brings seeds to London
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Visitors encouraged to play on crunchy carpet of seeds
  • Eleventh commission in acclaimed Unilever Series
  • Ai famous for co-designing Beijing's "Bird's Nest" stadium
  • Also well-known blogger and outspoken critic of Chinese government
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(CNN) -- A maverick Chinese artist has filled the main hall in London's famous Tate Modern art gallery with 100 million sunflower seeds.

Around 150 tons of seeds have been used to make an inches-thick carpet that visitors to the gallery will be encouraged to play in and crunch under foot.

The enormous installation, which opens Tuesday, is the work of artist Ai Weiwei, known as China's "Andy Warhol." The work is the 11th commission in the internationally acclaimed Unilever Series at the gallery, an annual series kicked off in 2000 by Louise Bourgeois's spiders and mirrors.

Ai's seeds are porcelain, each one individually handcrafted by laborers in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Each tiny piece has been individually molded and hand-painted, according to the gallery.

Sunflower seeds are a popular Chinese street snack and one of the country's most famous exports, according to the gallery. But they hold greater significance for Ai, who spent his childhood in Xinjiang as the son of a celebrated poet exiled by the Chinese communist government during the Cultural Revolution.

Video: Artist brings seeds to London (Chinese)
Gallery: Sunflower seeds invade Tate Modern

He told CNN: "It was very poor and rural there, we had nothing else to enjoy. Sunflower seeds were something basic that everyone could have. Every holiday, wedding or even just going to the movies, we would all share sunflower seeds with one another.

I think it's a very common, very inconspicuous object, but it also has a special relationship to our daily lives ... Of course, during the cultural revolution we all knew that the Sun symbolized the leader, and sunflowers represented the people. So I think these seeds carry multiple meanings."

Ai is a well-known and controversial figure in China, probably best-known today for the design -- in collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron -- of Beijing's "Bird's Nest" stadium, built for the 2008 Olympics.

Shortly after, Ai -- who is one of China's leading social activists and bloggers -- distanced himself from the Olympics calling for a boycott and saying the Chinese government was using them as propaganda.

In the 1990s, Ai came to international attention when he helped establish the avant-garde East Village in Beijing where a group of artists took up residence in impoverished migrant workers housing on the city's outskirts. It became a mecca for radical Chinese contemporary artists like Ma Liuming.

Other notable large-scale artworks that have filled the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall include Carsten Hollers' slides which had visitors shouting with excitement as they slid down; Olafur Eliasson's giant projection of the sun in "The Weather Project" and a huge crack in the floor courtesy of Doris Salcedo's "Shibboleth."

 
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