Ai Weiwei Sculptures at City Hall
Ai Weiwei ‘s 12 bronze animal heads are each a solid piece of bronze that weigh anywhere from 1,500 to 2,100 pounds. They stand at the top of a bronze pole roughly 10 feet high set into a marble base. They are intended to be a unique interpretation of the original statues of the Chinese zodiac that were looted from the gardens of the Yuanming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness, Old Summer Palace), an imperial retreat in Beijing.
Ai Weiwei, in reinterpreting these objects on an oversized scale as his Circle of Animal Zodiac Heads, focuses our attention on questions of looting and repatriation while continuing his ongoing exploration of the fake or copy in relation to the original.
Die hard Chinese historians persist in the belief that the original versions were a national treasure; after all, they mark a specific time, albeit a dark period, in Chinese history. The fact that the originals were designed in the 1700s by two European Jesuits as a garden decoration for court of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) is of little consequence.
The 12 zodiac animal heads were originally fashioned to serve as an elaborate water clock-fountain in the magnificent European-styled gardens. In 1860 during the Opium Wars, a grievous period in Chinese history, the palace was ransacked by the French and British troops and the zodiac heads, torn off of their original bodies, were looted.
Some were hauled off to the French and English courts; others were auctioned off to private collectors in London and Beijing. Presently only seven of the 12 figures are known to have survived the ravages. Five were repatriated back to China, but ownership of the remaining two remains uncertain and obtuse.
Ai Weiwei is exhibiting and staging his new Zodiac heads in western fountains as a comment on the pretensions of the art historians, collectors and media of both the West and China. However, times have changed since the Opium Wars and now the western world not only tolerates this reprimand but also actively supports the exhibit.
Ai Weiwei’s interpretations of these heads are wonderfully crafted and are worthy of viewing. Hope you’ve enjoyed the few shown above.