A Defunct UK Factory Needs to Dispose of 30 Tons of Buttons. Ai Weiwei Has a Crazy Idea: ‘Can I Have Them All?’

The Chinese artist responded to a plea made by a factory that is closing down.

Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei holds some seeds from his installation Sunflower Seeds at The Tate Modern in 2010. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.

Ai Weiwei is in the market for buttons—tons of them. The exiled Chinese artist used social media to express his interest in taking on a 30-ton hoard of buttons being offered by a factory that is closing down in South London. Better known for his vast works in ceramics, Lego, inflatable rubber, Ai’s surprise interest in buttons could mean he is becoming a textile artist.  

The 104-year-old factory in Croydon, A Brown & Co Buttons, is shutting down after a slump in sales, according to the BBCStuart Brown, the owner of the family-run company, was afraid that the “hundreds of thousands” of unsold buttons in the warehouse, which could have fetched around £1.5 million ($1.9 million), would have to be thrown out.

Brown’s fears were quelled after a sympathetic Twitter user, Amy Clare Tasker, made an online appeal on behalf of the company last week. Tasker tweeted: “COSTUME DESIGNERS: I’ve been asked to share this call to save buttons from landfill,” explaining that the factory needs to offload the 30 tons of plastic, metal, glass, pearl, and olive wood buttons, as well as wooden toggles.

Ai Weiwei responded to Tasker’s tweet on Friday, March 8, to ask “Can I have them all?”

Since then, imaginations have been running wild as to what the artist might have planned for the eclectic collection. Some theories include creating a similar work to his 2010 Sunflower Seeds, when the artist filled Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with 100 million hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds. A version is now on show at the Marciano Foundation in Los Angeles. One user wrote: “Can you please just put them all in one room so we can swim through them like Scrooge McDuck?”

Tasker’s tweet has been shared 5,219 times so far. Suggestions for the buttons to go to schools to be used in art classes and other crafts have poured in, as well as requests from button aficionados around the globe. Another artist, Delaine Derry Green, who uses buttons in her pattern-based artworks, also expressed an interest in the unwanted haberdashery.

Sarah Janalli, the factory owner’s sister-in-law whose contact details were included in Tasker’s tweet, responded to the floods of responses, writing “Thank you so much. The response has been overwhelming and we can’t cope with any more enquiries but SUCCESS! No buttons will go to landfill.”

It is unclear how the company has responded to Ai Weiwei’s interest. artnet News reached out to the artist and the company but has yet to hear back from either. A spokesman for Lisson Gallery confirms that negotiations between Ai and the company are in progress.

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I am suing Volkswagen in Denmark for violating my intellectual property and moral rights. My artwork “Soleil Levant” (2017), which I created for World Refugee Day, was installed at Copenhagen's Kunsthal Charlottenborg from June 20 to October 1, 2017. The work comprises 3,500 lifejackets used by refugees who fled to Lesvos, Greece, escaping persecution and conflict. In October 2017 Volkswagen Denmark used an unauthorized photo of “Soleil Levant” in an ad for its VW Polo campaign. I was not credited as the artist, and my artwork image was uncredited and cropped without permission. The infringing material was circulated to over 200,000 people, giving the false impression that I had authorized Volkswagen to use my artwork in its ad for the new Polo. I was astonished by Volkswagen’s brazen violations of my intellectual property and moral rights. Since November 2017 I have been trying to resolve the matter with Volkswagen. In more than one year of fruitless negotiation, they only engaged in arrogant gestures to trivialize their guilt and dismiss the matter. Intellectual property protection lies at the heart of a society that values human invention and makes our useful accumulation of knowledge possible. Respect of intellectual property law is one cornerstone of a functioning international legal system. As one of the largest European companies, Volkswagen should understand these same laws. Volkswagen and other multinational corporations have tremendous bargaining power in intellectual property protection as well as environmental and human rights. They are not above the law. Human rights, like intellectual property, is a popular concept but one that is difficult to enforce. We should remember that Germany took in one million refugees in 2015, a powerful humanitarian act in a divided world. As one of Germany’s internationally most visible companies, Volkswagen’s disregard for fair play and humanitarian issues is truly disturbing.

A post shared by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

Meanwhile, the artist is filing a lawsuit against Volkswagen in Denmark for using one of his artworks Soleil Levant (2017) as the backdrop in one of the carmaker’s advertisements. Ai says the company violated his intellectual property and moral rights by using the installation featuring 3,500 refugee life jackets without his permission. “Volkswagen’s disregard for fair play and humanitarian issues is truly disturbing,” the artist wrote on Instagram over the weekend.


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