Tate buys eight million Ai Weiwei sunflower seeds

The 10 tonnes of porcelain sunflower seeds are only a 10th of the number that covered the floor of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall

The Tate has acquired approximately 8m individual sculptures, its largest number of works of art ever, although each is smaller than a little finger nail: 10 tonnes of Ai Weiwei's famous porcelain sunflower seeds.

There won't be enough to cover the floor of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in London, as in the Chinese artist's installation in 2010, where the first visitors romped deliriously on a gritty beach until within 48 hours it was roped off, the ceramic dust condemned as a danger to health.

Sunflower Seeds 2010, the work that the Tate has bought, represents less than a 10th of the 100m seeds, all individually sculpted and painted by Chinese craft workers, used for the installation.

Instead the artist has suggested the seeds can be arranged either laid out as a square or, more dramatically, as a cone five metres in diameter and one and a half metres tall – as they have been displayed at Tate Modern as a loan from the artist from last June until earlier this year.

The Tate acquired the work with the help of a grant from the Art Fund charity, but has not revealed the price. However, a quantity of the seeds were sold at a Sotheby's auction last year, soared above the top estimate and ended up at £3.50 a seed.

Ai Weiwei has become China's most famous living artist not just for the internationally admired quality of his work, but for his troubles with his native country, where he has recently faced house arrest, investigation for "spreading pornography" and the demolition of his studio. The Chinese authorities have charged him with tax evasion, but most commentators are convinced their real problem with him is his outspoken defence of human rights and criticism of China's treatment of dissidents.

He is collaborating with the architects Herzog & de Meuron, the design team responsible for the bird's nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to create this summer's temporary pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, London.

• This article was amended on 6 March 2012 because the original said a similar quantity of seeds were sold at a Sotheby's auction last year. In fact 100 kilograms of seeds were sold at the auction last year.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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