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.
So to the political present. Well, in 2009, the Chinese government tried to block the sale of two of the original heads, a rabbit and a rat, being offered at auction by Pierre Berge, the partner of the late Yves St Laurent. Berge then infuriated the Chinese government by offering to return the heads to China if the government would instigate human rights in the country and give Tibet its freedom. Of course they refused. The two heads were then auctioned and the winning bidder, Cai Mingchao, a member of China’s ‘Lost Cultural Relics Foundation,’ bid $19 million dollars and then he refused to pay.
While this dispute was going on Ai Weiwei decided to make a work of art that looked at these uncomfortable cultural, moral and ‘aesthetic issues. In doing so he posed a number of intriquing questions such as; Are the works ‘fakes’ or ‘copies?’, Is it important to know anything about the Chinese Zodiac? What is the role of ancient cultural symbols in a Postmodern work of art? Who ‘owns’ the original, looted Zodiac heads? Does a government in power, whatever its legitimacy, ‘own’ the culture it governs and its artifacts?
There are no clear answers only uncertainty. So like John Seed Professor of Art and Art History says:
Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold” is really a work about the freedom of the imagination, and the persistence of ideas. It was conceived by a courageous man who has put his life and career at risk by asking inconvenient questions. It is worth nothing that Ai Weiwei, who was born on May 18, 1957, was born under the sign of the rooster, an indication of a cautious, skeptical and perceptive mind.
The exhibition opened in New york in 2011 and has been on tour since. You can see it at the following places over the next 16 months:
Washington DC, USA
19TH April 2012 – 24TH February 2013
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Princeton, NJ, USA
Late Summer / Fall 2012
Cleveland, OH, USA
14th April 2013 – 6th October 2013
Cleveland Museum of Art
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Carnegie Museum of Art
Via Zodiac Heads
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