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Ai Weiwei @ Crocker Art Museum

Installation View: Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads  
by David M. Roth
In art, as in life, few things are what they seem. Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads is a case in point. The series, created and sent on tour by the artist and AW Asia, is based on a group of bronze animal heads that functioned as a water-spouting clock in an 18th century imperial palace outside Beijing known as the Yuanming Yuuan.  Ai’s remakes currently grace a sunny courtyard between the Crocker’s original 1872 Italianate structure and the adjoining $100 million addition opened in 2010.  Arrayed in a wide arc, the heads, whether seen at close range or from behind the new wing’s floor-to-ceiling lobby window, make for a stunning display.
Longtime observers may wonder why Ai, the world’s leading artist/human rights activist, became interested in these formerly obscure relics. The answer, in part, has to do with the fact Chinese artisans had no hand in making them; the originals were created by Italian Jesuits in the employ of the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong,

Horse, 2010, bronze, 119 x 53 x 61"  

a ruler whose reign (1735-96) might have been considered progressive on account of his interest in western culture and his hiring of the noted polymath, Giuseppe Castiglione, to create the European wing of that structure.  (A reproduction of Castiglione’s portrait of the emperor on horseback attests to his virtuosity.)  Today that legacy is mired in controversy. Ai called the animal heads “Western playthings,” bastardized versions of older designs that better reflect Chinese history and culture.

So why fabricate expensive replicas of them?  The backstory begins when British and French forces, at the end the second Opium War (1856-60), sacked the Yuanming Yuuan and stole the heads. There were twelve, each corresponding to a sign of the Chinese zodiac.  Seven were discovered in private collections; five remain unaccounted for.  The Chinese call this era the “period of national humiliation,” a characterization drilled into every schoolchild.  So when several heads turned up at auction between 2000 and in 2009 the public outcry was intense. China called them “national treasures” and accused Christies and the sellers of looting.  Then, in an about-face, the government-run Poly Museum, between 2000 and 2003, purchased five of those heads for a staggering $116.76 million.
Those actions, in Ai’s view, undercut China’s position, proving that his country is less interested in righting historical wrongs than in twisting history to suit its political agenda.  Ai buttresses that claim by pointing to the fact that local villagers, to this day, continue to cart off remnants of the pillaged site. “What is really most bizarre

Tiger, 2010, bronze, 129 x 53 x 62" 

is that objects like these can be misunderstood as a national treasure, when really they are not…They were designed by an Italian, made by a Frenchman for a Qing-Dynasty emperor” whose forebears “actually invaded China,” he explained in an interview for the exhibition catalog.  “So if we talk about national treasure, what nation are we talking about?”

Ai is no stranger to chest-beating patriotism and political doublespeak. Since speaking out against his government for the shoddy construction that claimed the lives of nearly 5,000 school children during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, he’s been subject to constant harassment, a near-fatal beating, the demolition of his studio, imprisonment and house arrest. Working against that background, he felt the zodiac heads were “the perfect set of forms for a public artwork.”
Ai approached the project — his first foray into public art — the same way he does much else, employing highly skilled artisans to create what is, in his opinion, a fake of a fake.  Projects of a similar nature have included smashing Han Dynasty urns and re-creating ancient porcelain vases (Emperor's Choice, 1996-98) to such exacting verisimilitude that experts couldn’t detect any difference between Ai’s copies and the originals.  Like Andy Warhol, an early influence, Ai uses appropriation to examine the politics of culture and the forces that determine what is and what isn’t art. 
While the exhibition does a fine job of explaining the Yuanming Yuuan’s history and the symbolism of Chinese astrology, the nuances of Ai’s argument against the government get lost.  That is because Ai’s soft speaking voice is nearly drowned by background music in the accompanying video, the only part of the exhibition where his views are adequately aired.  The objects, do, to a certain extent, speak for themselves.  The heads suggest enormous, fearsome creatures. Beautifully crafted and standing ten feet tall — their bulk magnified by bronze — these reimagined artifacts reflect the animals’ stature in Chinese cosmology.  While the original 17th century heads were mounted on human forms, Ai’s stand on slender poles, incised to resemble braided rope.  Each is supported on the ground by forms whose shapes recall lily pads. This conjoining of ungainly and fragile forms makes for a strange, but functional unity.
Ram, 2010, bronze, 120 x 60 x 62"
By the time Circle of Animals concludes its tour this fall at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, it will have reached 21 major cities, including Sao Paulo, Paris, New York, London, Toronto and Mexico City.  If by chance you miss it, don't despair.  Ai has fabricated and a gilded, smaller-scale version of the series.  It, too, is on tour, and is called, appropriately, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold.  It opens at the Nevada Museum of Art July 23 and runs to October 23.  
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Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads @ Crocker Art Museum through May 1, 2016.
Photos: Joan Moment

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