The Mary Boone gallery welcomed that certain mélange of patrons Saturday evening, the kind possible only in New York. The torn-legging twenty-somethings wandered in alongside debonair art collectors, followed by stroller-pushing mothers and the general eccentrics emerging from the Chelsea woodwork.
Walking into the gallery space, we first noticed a man wearing a be-plumed top-hat stroking a composite stuffed animal that was two parts rodent, one part duck, one part walrus. “Who is the artist?” The man asked a gallery staff member. “It’s written on the wall,” responded the gallerist, visibly annoyed. “Ai Weiwei,” the aspiring vivisectionist sounded out, reading the decal. “What is he, like Chinese?”
We walked through the entryway into the main gallery space where, arranged in a perfect rectangle, four million porcelain sunflower seeds were on display. The exhibition is part of Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei’s latest project—an ambitious undertaking years in the making—for which 1,600 artisans in the Chinese town of Jingdezhen sculpted and hand-painted over 130 million ceramic seeds. While only a small portion of those kernels could fit sensibly into Ms. Boone’s gallery, the spectacle was enough to draw a sizable crowd.
The disparate groups circumambulated the pile, marveling at the display. Some sat with their Nikons snapping pictures for an NYU photography class, while others meandered around the shock of porcelain pods. A guard kept a watchful eye on the crowd, glaring suspiciously when guests edged to close to the work.
We encountered Jim Oliver, one of the gallery’s directors, who explained the symbolism underlying the exhibit. “The sunflower seeds are kind of like a metaphor for people,” he said. “In a way each one of those kind of symbolizes an individual. And if you look at them, they’re all different. They’re all unique but they look like they aren’t,” he said.
We asked Mr. Oliver about the installation process. The four million ceramic seeds, he explained, were shipped in one-ton bags on palates from China. It took a full day to arrange the seeds in the gallery.
When the work was originally displayed at the Tate Modern in London, museum patrons were invited to walk on the seeds, sit in them, and play with them. (“It’s kind of like a beach,” Mr. Oliver explained.) However, after fears emerged about toxic dust accumulating as the porcelain was ground beneath the soles of well-heeled Londoners in unventilated galleries, the museum put the kibosh on the interactive element. The seeds now sit unmolested in galleries and auction houses across the world.
With the security guard’s eyes searing into our back, The Observer crouched by the assemblage to take a closer look. Each oblong ceramic husk was painted with the grey and ivory ribbons, requiring a level of pragmatic precision that hands alone, not machines, can achieve.
We soon noticed Mary Boone herself, sporting a purple skirt and matching jacket, chatting with guests in a corner of the stark, seed-filled room. “I met Weiwei at Documenta, and I knew I wanted to show his work,” she told us. She described the artist as “very humorous and smart, very humble and soft spoken.” The geometric arrangement of the seeds was, she explained, stipulated directly by Mr. Ai himself. “We put it exactly in the format the artist specified. When I saw him this summer in Beijing, he had said exactly how it needed to be,” Ms. Boone said. Asked if she was concerned about people taking the seeds, she laughed. “That’s why we have the guard,” she said off-handedly.