Ai Weiwei zodiac sculptures sell for record S$5.8m in London

A set of 12 gold-plated animal head sculptures by China's Ai Weiwei sold for £2.8 million (S$5.8 million) at auction on Feb 12, 2015, setting a new record for the dissident artist's work. -- PHOTO: AFP
A set of 12 gold-plated animal head sculptures by China's Ai Weiwei sold for £2.8 million (S$5.8 million) at auction on Feb 12, 2015, setting a new record for the dissident artist's work. -- PHOTO: AFP

London (AFP) - A set of 12 gold-plated animal head sculptures by China's Ai Weiwei sold for £2.8 million (S$5.8 million) at auction on Thursday (Feb 12), setting a new record for the dissident artist's work.

The 2010 work Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads led a contemporary art sale by auction house Philips in London.

The 12 sculptures represent the Chinese zodiac: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig, each head mounted on a pedestal.

The pieces are modelled on smaller heads designed in the 18th century by two European Jesuits at the court of Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong.

The originals formed a fountain water clock at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, but were ransacked by French and British troops in 1860.

Ai worked from the seven remaining originals and imagined the five heads that had not survived, drawing on depictions in tapestry and print for the dragon.

The dissident artist is noted for his controversial relationship with heritage, infamously smashing a Han Dynasty Urn in a performance work in 1995.

Auction house Philips said that though the animal head sculptures were a recreation of an older work, they achieved "glorious aesthetic coherence" and make a comment on authenticity.

"The fake is invested with the power to revive the past," the auctioneers said in a press release. "The marriage that is made - troubled, yet oddly serene - offers a lustrous exhibition of what might be a brighter, less confused and more beautiful future."

Another Ai Weiwei work sold at the auction was "Coloured vases (in 3 parts)" from 2010, neolithic vases the artist had covered with bright industrial paint, which sold for £182,500.

The zodiac sculptures sold were the first complete set to come to auction, and one of eight gilded sets made, plus four artist's proofs.

Further sets of a much larger version of the animal sculptures have also been made in bronze.

The works have been displayed in art museums and public spaces around the world in a travelling exhibition since 2010.

In Singapore, 12 bronze replicas of zodiac sculptures from Hong Kong star Jackie Chan's 2012 movie CZ12 are also on display at the Asian Civilisations Museum - these replicas are based on the same set of sculptures that inspired Ai.