ART News

AI WEIWEI'S CIRCLE OF ANIMALS / ZODIAC HEADS EXPLAINED

9th February 2022 | Guest Writer: Rachele Rosina
At the LACMA, Los Angeles, the twelve heads speak about the history of cultures, colonialism and authenticity.
Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, by the artist Ai Weiwei has circled back to LACMA, Los Angeles, as it is part of the exhibition Legacies of Exchange: Chinese Contemporary Art from the Yuz Foundation on view until 13 March 2022.

The twelve bronze statues - three meters high and over 300kg each- represent the heads of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Shown to the public for the first time in 2011 at the Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza (New York), the pieces have since then travelled four different continents. The group was first exhibited at LACMA in 2011 (the year the artist was detained in China causing an international outcry).

For the artwork, the artist took inspiration from the statues that once decorated the Haiyantang Zodiac fountain at the Yuanming Yuan (Old Summer Palace) in Beijing. As part of a water clock, the twelve animals would have sprouted water from their mouth in intervals of two hours each throughout the day.

Shen Yuan and Tangdai, and a calligrapher, Wang Youdun, One of 40 Scenes of the Yuanmingyuan, 1744.

The fountain, and more generally the entire Yuanming Yuan, is one of those glorious, magnificent oeuvres that encountered a tragic end. The Old Summer Palace was built throughout the 18th century. It was so magnificent that besides gardens and buildings, it also included tableaux vivant - fields or fake villages were eunuchs and maids pretended to be peasants and commoners- where the emperor and his family could play.

Between 1747-1759, the palace was further expanded and decorated by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), an Italian Jesuit who severed at the Qing court during the reign of three Qing emperors (Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianglong) for over 50 years.

Yuanming Yuan (Old Summer Palace), Beijing, Today.
Built in the era of economic and cultural exchanges, the palace was a mix of Western and Eastern architecture, where the two worlds would merge.

Unfortunately, today only a few traces of it can still be seen. The pillage inflicted the first wound to the palace at the hands of British and French soldiers during the Second Opium War in 1860. Despite looting focused more on ceramics, rather than the bronze vessels locally used in ancient times for cooking and as part of grave goods, the heads decorating the fountain have not been not overlooked. Some of the treasures form the Old Palace became part of the collection of the Empress Eugéne, who set up the Museum in the Palace of Fontainebleau in 1867.
Print of Palaces, Pavillions and Gardens at Yuanming Yuan, After Giuseppe Castiglione, France, Paris Jardin De Flore.

With the 20th century, the political turmoils worsened the already poor conditions of the site. Although initially protected by the court, most of the remaining gardens were turned to ashes during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900). Furthermore, during the latter decades of the empire, trees and households were sold for revenue. After its fall, the palace became a reliable source of materials and decoration for anyone who wanted to build or decorate their houses.

The coup de grace was given by the effects of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1977): the relics of the institution that the palace had once hosted and the foreign influences were still perceived through the remains, and therefore punished with destruction.

The end of the Mao Era, with the death of the Chairman in 1976, and the economy’s re-opening towards the West, signed the beginning of renovated interest towards cultural artefacts and history.

Only seven out of twelve of the original heads have been returned to China: the Rat, the Cow, the Tiger, the Monkey, the Rabbit, and the Boar and, most recently, the Horse, which was sold for $8.84 million in 2007 to the Macau gaming magnate Stanley Ho and then donated to the Chinese Government in 2019. Five heads are still in unknown locations.

Yuanmingyuan Museum, Beijing.

Seen all the contested history of the original statues and knowing the artist's rebellious spirit, it comes with no surprise that the artist chose the twelve animals as subject matter for his work. The artwork speaks of cultural history, colonialism and its aftermaths, such as politics of ownership and repatriation.

Furthermore, reimagining the five undiscovered heads, the artist also raises the question of authenticity, part in his ongoing inquest on originality (and ‘fakeness’) in art. The heads are "a copy of an original, but not an exact copy – something that has its own sensitive layer of languages, which are different, and that bears the mark of our time," in Ai Weiwei words. A fluid interpretation made possible also by the name of the artwork itself - doubled so that each spectator can make their own assumptions.

Shooting in every direction, the artist has once again proved to be able to appeal different audiences, raising uncomfortable questions that both East and West have been trying to ignore - while still remaining playful and accessible to a broader public.

Ai Weiwei with Dog (detail), Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, 2010. Courtesy the artist.


About the Writer
Rachele Rosina specialises in Art of China, Japan and Korea.

After graduating in Beijing in Chinese Language and Culture, Rachele moved to London in 2018 to complete her MA in History of Art and Archaeology of East Asia at SOAS University of London.
Fascinated by the city’s restless art scene, she now works in the art industry.

With a focus on contemporary art and cultural studies, she is interested in the stories behind the artworks and wonders a lot about the future of art.

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