By Hal Johnson, 2014 ARCA student and DNA Consultant
Few contemporary artists are more socially and politically conscious than Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei. His world views are often expressed in his work, which has become his most powerful means of communication now that the Chinese government has curtailed his attempts at free speech. He was once a celebrated artist and architect in his country and arguably still is. However, he ran afoul of authorities after criticizing the government’s handling of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the massive earthquakes in Sichuan Province that same year. He was an outspoken blogger – the forum where he expressed many of his frank political opinions – until it was shut down by the state. In 2011 he was detained for 81 days; upon his release his passport was revoked and he was slapped with charges of tax evasion. Undeterred, Mr. Ai continues to speak out whenever possible and has an active role in the exhibition of his work abroad. His sculpture group “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads” is on tour to raise awareness of contested cultural heritage.
The twelve animal heads are inspired by similar bronze sculptures that originally adorned a fountain at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. In 1860, the fountain heads were looted during the Second Opium War when the palace was sacked by British and French troops. Over the years the heads ended up in several private collections. The two most famous pieces were the Rat and the Rabbit, which were owned by Yves Saint Laurent. After the fashion icon’s death in 2008, they went up for sale at Christie’s along with the rest of his art collection. Their status as war loot was common knowledge and the auction proceeded despite protests from China. Chinese bidder Cai Mingchao staged his own protest by winning the heads (with a bid of $19 million each) and then refusing to pay. They were later repatriated to China in 2013 by billionaire François Pinault. Several more heads from the old fountain remain in private hands outside of China.
Ai Weiwei is well aware of the history of the zodiac heads and that they have become a figurehead for contested cultural property. But true to form, his tour is also meant to highlight the inconsistency, even hypocrisy, of China’s efforts to reacquire its heritage: “They never really care about culture. This is the nature of a communist, to destroy the old world, to rebuild the new one. We’re not clear about what is most important in those so-called traditional classics. The Zodiac is a perfect example to show their ignorance on this matter.” Indeed, countless Chinese cultural property was wantonly destroyed by the Chinese themselves during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960’s. How much more has been sacrificed by China in its transformation into an economic superpower?
Mr. Ai’s “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads” is actually several sculpture groups on separate tours – the 3-meter tall freestanding Bronze Series and the much smaller Gold Series. One of the Bronze Series is currently on display in Chicago. I visited them earlier this fall (see photos). They are aptly placed facing the Adler Planetarium on Chicago’s scenic lakefront, where they will remain on display until April 2015. A Gold Series is currently part of a large Ai Weiwei retrospective exhibit at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, UK. For more information on the “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads” tour and the artist himself, please visit the following link: http://www.zodiacheads.com/index.html.