Meaning of Ai Weiwei's zodiac heads

The work, Circle Of Animals/ Zodiac Heads (above), by Ai Weiwei outside the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
The work, Circle Of Animals/ Zodiac Heads (above), by Ai Weiwei outside the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

China artist's replicas of zodiac heads looted from Old Summer Palace in Beijing a commentary on historical memory

NEW YORK • On summer days at Princeton University, children splash in a fountain next to an unlikely piece of art: 12 large bronze heads of animals sitting atop poles in a line.

The heads are arrayed between the fountain and the hall of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

The 3m installations are the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac and the Chinese tour groups common here in the summer often stop to take photographs.

The heads were designed around 2010 by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a frequent critic of his country's Communist Party, and are replicas of the famous zodiac heads looted in the sacking of the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanming Yuan, by British and French soldiers in 1860.

The originals were part of a water clock and were arranged around a fountain that European Jesuits had designed a century earlier for the court of the Qianlong Emperor.

Those original heads are now scattered around the world, with a handful kept in Beijing after being bought or recovered from their foreign owners by the state-owned China Poly Group Corp. For many Chinese, the original heads symbolise the "century of humiliation" that China endured at the hands of Western and Japanese invaders starting in the late Qing dynasty.

Ai's work, called the Circle Of Animals/Zodiac Heads, is a commentary on historical memory.

The heads have sat outside Robertson Hall for four years. They are on loan until this December, but the collector who owns them, a Princeton graduate, may extend their stay, said Mr Larry Warsh, a friend of Ai's who manages the international tours and exhibitions of the heads.

"The person is a real intellectual and is into the concept of the works being in front of the Woodrow Wilson School specifically," Mr Warsh said, adding that the collector prefers to remain anonymous. "With all the people who come through those doors on an annual basis, it makes an impact."

In a recent interview, Ai said he had long been interested in the heads and became keenly aware of their political overtones in 2009, when the Chinese government stoked a nationalist uproar over an attempt by Christie's to auction off two pieces, a rabbit and a rat. They had been part of the estate of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

The Chinese government, Ai said, used the occasion "to generate some sort of public opinion for propaganda purposes to gain some kind of national pride or... anger about what happened 100 years ago".

He said he wrote a blog post at the time, pointing out the flaws in the way the Communist Party was manipulating history. He said he found it curious that objects that Europeans had created to ornament a Qing palace were being held up as emblems of China and their recovery framed as a patriotic project.

The Qing dynasty was founded by Manchus who had invaded China from their homeland in the north- east and seized the throne in Beijing in 1644 after rebels had already toppled the Ming court.

To many Chinese revolutionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Manchu rulers were themselves a foreign force to be eliminated as part of China's transformation into a modern nation.

Ai said he thought of recreating the heads as public art and placing them at different sites in the West. That, he said, would be "quite an ironic act".

Mr Jeremiah Jenne, a historian who gives tours of Yuanming Yuan, said the Qing-era zodiac heads and their association with a particular nationalist or patriotic narrative are also part of a coordinated curriculum instituted in the wake of 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests and subsequent government crackdown.

There are six editions of Ai's zodiac heads in bronze and an additional two artist's proofs. The series at Princeton has been on display at a single site longer than any other bronze set. The bronze and gold heads have been shown at nearly 40 sites and, together, they are Ai's most viewed work of art.

Last year, a bronze series that was the first one completed, in 2010, sold at auction for £3.4 million (S$5.9 million) at Phillips in London. It set an auction record for Ai.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2016, with the headline 'Meaning of Ai Weiwei's zodiac heads'. Print Edition | Subscribe