A visit to Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads

One thing I was looking forward to seeing in New York was Zodiac Heads by 艾未未 (Ai Wei Wei). I wanted to see the sculptures because I had not seen any of Ai’s work, but had heard a lot about him. I heard about his work for the Beijing Olympics and the subsequent falling out with the architecture firm. I think exhibiting the sculptures in the United States (and other parts of the world) would bring more attention to his work. However, I did not expect the news of his detention almost a month before the sculptures were to debut at the Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza, Central Park. The news brought more attention to the issue of human rights in China. When I visited the sculptures, I noticed that someone wrote “Free Wei Wei” on a sign. Unfortunately Ai Weiwei is still in the custody of the Chinese government.

The sculptures are arranged in front of the fountain, in somewhat of a semicircle. The animals are in the order of the zodiac from left to right: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. The way the sculptures are oriented, none of them are facing each other. Rather, the animals are looking straight at the viewer. The animal heads are connected to a base by a column that looks like flowing water. I believe the entire sculptures are made of bronze. The mouths of the animals are open, which evokes an image of water coming out of their mouths. The animals do not have a calm disposition. There is a feeling of anger coming from the expressions of the animals.

An exhibition at the Arsenal Gallery (third floor of the Arsenal Building in Central Park) gives the historical background to the artwork. One image in the adjunct exhibition is a sketch of the original zodiac heads at 圓明園 (Yuanming Yuan). The animals were depicted sitting in a semicircle. Only the heads were made of bronze. Each animal would spout water every two hours. At noon, all twelve animals spouted water.

Pictures of the current state of Yuanming Yuan showed broken walls and debris. I’m not sure if it’s really the state it was in after it was pillaged by the British and French during the Second Opium War. However, it does seem that nothing was done to clean it up and recreate its original state. The bronze zodiac heads were stolen and have been showing up at prestigious auctions. The Chinese government is attempting to have all of them returned to China.

There was a picture of the original bronze horse head. In comparison to the recreation, the original looks gentler and less harsh. The sketch of the animals at Yuanming Yuan evoked thoughts of happy animals. Perhaps the expression of the recreated zodiac heads is a reflection of the past. It may be that due to history, China needs to be aggressive to be powerful in the world. It is also significant that the sculptures are being shown on American and British soil.


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