Ai Weiwei’s ‘Zodiac’ animals turning heads at museum

[Photo: Kaila Jones]

A shiny treat is in store for anyone visiting the Vero Beach Museum of Art this summer. Thanks to the generosity of local collector Bill Miller, the museum has on view a sculpture installation titled Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads by the internationally acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei. Zodiac Heads will be on display through Dec. 15 of this year.

The work comprises 12 gilded bronze heads of animals in the Chinese zodiac: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. The sculptures are mounted on individual rosewood-veneered pedestals and arranged in a circle in the museum’s Stark Rotunda.

All the heads, save the pig’s, face inward. According to the 12-year cycle that is the Chinese zodiac, 2019 is the Year of the Pig – and the gleaming fellow at the VBMA is positioned in a place of honor. With snout pointed down the broad hallway that separates him from the reception area, he is clearly visible to all who enter the museum.

“We are very fortunate to have this particular piece on loan from a local collection,” says Danielle Johnson, VBMA curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, who notes that Bill Miller is not only the lender of the piece, but also its presenting sponsor.

Johnson calls Ai Weiwei “one of the most important contemporary artists working today.”

But, she clarifies, he’s not only an artist.

“He’s also an architect, a poet, a writer and an activist. He’s very much concerned with human rights in China, and particularly the lack of democracy in China.”

Ai left China as an exile in 2015 and settled in Berlin, Germany, which is now home base for his varied international projects.

Ai was still living and working in China in 2010 when he unveiled Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads in both a large, patinated bronze edition of six (with two artist’s proofs) and a smaller scale, gilded edition of eight (with four artist’s proofs).

The large-scale version began touring the world immediately; it first appeared at the 29th São Paulo Biennale in Brazil, where it was on view from Sept. 24 to Dec. 12, 2010.

During that time, in November 2010, Chinese police placed Ai under house arrest.

In deed as well as in word, Ai had for the past several years a lot to say about the People’s Republic. In 2005 he began a blog that, in addition to airing his views on art, architecture and Chinese culture, sharply criticized government policy.

In the aftermath of the catastrophic May 12, 2008, earthquake in Sichuan province, Ai created a documentary video that followed citizen volunteers as they struggled to determine the number and names of children who died when their “tofu-dreg” (shoddily constructed) school buildings collapsed on them. The government tried to hide the death toll from the public, but the volunteers identified nearly 5,000 students who had perished. Wei then made “Remembrance,” a nearly three-hour recording of the children’s names being read aloud.

Between 2008 and 2012, Ai created “Straight,” an installation piece created from 150 tons of steel salvaged from schools destroyed in the quake. A severe beating by police that Ai suffered during a 2009 visit to the city of Chengdu in Sichuan has been linked to those activities.

In 2011, Ai was incarcerated for 81 days in a secret location on charges of tax evasion and moral corruption. Official protests from the U.S. government and the European Union, in addition of thousands of private citizens around the globe, helped to secure his release.

At first blush, Zodiac Heads does not appear to have a political agenda. The heads were reproduced by artisans after a group that was originally part of a fountain at the Old Summer Palace, an imperial complex of buildings and gardens in Beijing.

That fountain was created by two Jesuit missionaries who worked in the service of the Qianlong Emperor in mid-18th century China. Giuseppe Castiglione was the Italian artist who designed the animal heads, and Michel Benoit was the French scientist/engineer who devised the hydraulics for the fountain’s timed water displays.

Says Johnson, “At the moment the heads were designed, it was really an interesting cross-cultural influence of Europeans working in China. Unfortunately, that changed during the Second Opium War in 1860, when the original zodiac heads were ransacked by British and French soldiers.”

The seven extant heads have since been returned to China, but the fate of five others remains unknown: the snake, dragon, rooster, dog and rat. While the monkey, pig, ox, rabbit, tiger, hare and horse are close copies of the originals, the missing ones have been recreated based on research into how they may have been depicted at the time. All the representations are somewhat anthropomorphic. Shown with their mouths slightly open, the animals seem almost to smile.

Johnson agrees. Of the hare, with its even-toothed grin, she says, “That one looks like a cartoon rabbit; like it’s about to start talking.”

The heads were subsequently dispersed among collections in Europe. In 2009, when two of the heads (then part of the estate of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent) came up for auction at Christie’s, the Chinese government created an uproar, framing the artifacts as emblems of the west’s insatiable appropriation of China’s cultural treasures.

China’s patriotic fervor over the theft of its patrimony was the inspiration Ai needed to produce Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads. The artist was well aware of the disputed artifacts’ cosmopolitan history.

To start off, the Qing Dynasty was founded by invaders from Mongolia in the 17th century. The Manchu were an ethically separate people from the Han Chinese, who had traditionally ruled China. The sixth emperor in the Qing Dynasty was an admirer of all things European, and that is why he invited European artisans and scientists to live and work at his court. The Old Summer Palace, its gardens and the art that filled them, were an odd mix of Chinese and European styles and materials.

Ai found his government’s outcry over its lost heritage richly ironic. Sure, the English and French had humiliated China during the 19th century’s Opium Wars, but the Manchu invaders had done that a couple of centuries earlier, and had forever altered Chinese culture in the process.

The fact that the animal heads that originally graced a Qing Dynasty ruler’s fountain were sculpted with a European flair under the direction of an Italian Jesuit lay brother was the icing on the cake. And it didn’t hurt, either, that European invaders later destroyed and looted the palace complex that previous European guests had helped build.

In May 2017, a Phillip’s auction house featured a gold-plated edition of Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads. The catalog description of the lot contained a quote about the art work that Ai had given the Hirschhorn Museum when a set of the heads was displayed there.

Ai said, “My work is always dealing with real or fake authenticity, and what’s the value, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings. I think [there is] a strong humorous aspect there. So I wanted to make a complete set [of zodiac heads], including the seven original and the missing five.

“I think the public deserves the best,” he said. “Before, only a pope or an emperor could see those kinds of things.”

Now the heads, recreated in multiple editions by Ai Weiwei and made available for loan around the world, have come to represent democracy.

No one knows today how the original bronze heads were mounted in their fountain setting, but in Ai’s version, they are connected to their square, gilded bronze bases by textured stalks of the same material. To some, those slender stems might read as gore dripping from the disembodied heads; perhaps this could be read as Ai’s commentary on the original heads’ forcible removal from China?

“I hadn’t thought of that,” says Johnson. “To me the heads look as though they are rising atop a fountain’s jet. Perhaps not the snake (whose head drips coin shapes), but certainly some of the others. It’s like water, and it evokes their original fountain grouping.”


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