Ai Weiwei‘s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is the latest installation by the internationally famous Chinese artist who is perhaps more known for his attacks on the Chinese establishment than his wonderful work. The piece is a reinterpretation of the 12 bronze animal heads representing the traditional Chinese zodiac that once adorned the famed fountain clock of the Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat in Beijing. In other words a rat, an ox, a tiger, a rabbit, a dragon, a snake, a horse, a sheep, a monkey, a rooster, a dog and a pig.
The clock has a European connection as it was originally designed in the 18th century by an Italian Jesuit serving in the court of the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong. In 1860, the Yuanming Yuan retreat was ransacked by French and British troops (led by Lord Elgin whose father famously took marbles – now called the Elgin marbles – from the Parthenon in Greece) and the heads were taken from the gardens in which they were situated. So that’s the background to the original heads. But it is the clash of the past and their story in the political present that Weiwei tries to give physical form to.