Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals
Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, his first work of monumental public art, drew worldwide attention in spring 2011 when the artist was detained by Chinese authorities shortly before the work debuted in New York. Held incommunicado for eighty days, Ai Weiwei was released only after an international protest campaign was mounted by museums, artists, and concerned citizens.
A lively re-envisioning of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads reaches back to a dark episode in China’s relationship with the West: the Second Opium War, and the wanton destruction by British troops of the Yuanming Yuan, the Garden of Perfect Brightness, in 1860.
An imperial retreat built a century earlier, the Yuanming Yuan featured an ornate, European-style section with grand fountains, gardens, and palaces. At the center was a splendid zodiac water-clock fountain, whose spouting bronze-headed figures, representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac, marked the hours of the day. Looted and carried off long ago, the seven bronze heads that survive have in recent years become fraught symbols of the cultural achievements of the Qing era, the nation’s period of humiliation by the West, and contemporary China’s complicated relationship to its own history.
Seizing on the rich and contradictory symbolism of the heads, Ai Weiwei re-interpreted the entire set of twelve as a contemporary installation work, which began an international tour in New York and London in 2011. That large bronze installation and a smaller edition finished in gold are beautifully illustrated in this volume, along with more than thirty-five other works by Ai Weiwei, some of them never before seen publicly.
Opening essays and a revealing interview with the artist place Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads in the broader context of his work, followed by an in-depth look at the history of the original heads and perspectives on the frenzied activity surrounding the surviving heads at auction.
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“The playful appearance of the work is entirely deliberate, as is the complex historical premise, a story brought to life in [these] pages. . . . This book, as well as the work it celebrates, are monuments to the persistence of history and art.”
—Publisher’s Weekly, 2012
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