• Sydney Lines

Review: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei


The gold series of the Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei was on view at the Phoenix Art Museum from October 3, 2015 to January 31, 2016 in its ongoing international tour. Ai Weiwei is one of the foremost Chinese contemporary artists today and likely the most controversial. His life has been riddled with moments of exile, physical punishment, and surveillance under the Chinese government for his public criticisms of the communist state, and these experiences tend to motivate and politicize Ai’s work. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is such a work in its exploration of issues with Chinese heritage, censorship, and cultural ownership.

Ai Wei Wei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads at the Phoenix Art Museum. Photo credit: Sydney Lines.

The layout of the exhibition itself is simple and functional. There is ample space to walk along the rows of zodiac heads, each mounted atop its own wooden pedestal. The heads are not encased in glass nor roped off, and visitors are encouraged to get up close and share images or selfies using the social media hashtag #zodiacheads. The adjacent walls have large panels that explain the context of the zodiac heads. Under the Qing dynasty and during the Second Opium War, English and French troops destroyed and looted the Yuangmingyuan summer palace. The twelve zodiac heads, originally part of the central fountain, were part of the loot. Some of these have since been recovered; others remain missing. Each time a new zodiac head makes it to auction, it is a constant humiliation to the Chinese, who organize and protest, calling for repatriation.

Rather than simply display objects, the Phoenix Art Museum offers its own interpretation by placing other 18th century Chinese art objects in its collection, that may or may not have been originally looted in similar means to the heads, in the same exhibition space. The museum places itself within the same conversation and assists Ai Weiwei in provoking questions about cultural heritage, ownership, and the ethics involved in the decisions made about such objects. The curator decided to include a monitor with Ai Weiwei’s live Twitter feed, where he offers criticism of global political issues from the Syrian refugee crisis to racism in Sweden, so it also calls attention to Ai’s strong participation in contemporary political activism.

Secondarily, the exhibition highlights Ai’s own censorship and complicated position in Chinese culture. In a video installation in the same space, Ai mentions that the nature of communism is to destroy the past and rebuild, so the current Chinese regime is ignorant, perhaps willfully, to the sale of these looted items. Ai sits in an interesting political space, where he calls attention to these moments in Chinese history but is simultaneously under surveillance and control by the current communist regime. In its initial inception, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads was conceived while under house arrest. The sculptures have been touring since 2010, and it was only in July 2015 that Ai’s passport was reinstated. The sculptures act as a kind of metaphor for Ai’s voice, so that even if he conceptualizes and creates his art on house arrest in his studio in Beijing, the works move about the international landscape expressing these very issues.

Ai Weiwei is a conceptual artist, and the exhibition was rich with contextual information, media, and art objects in conversation with one another that successfully convey a political and cultural message about Chinese heritage, the repatriation of cultural objects, and the way Ai uses his role as an outlier to engage in political activism for not only his heritage but the world at large. In a serendipitous moment, surrounded by relics of violent human acts, I caught sight of the Twitter feed one last time before exiting. Ai had just tweeted about the new Danish law that would allow police to confiscate valuable items from asylum seekers. It called to mind another statement Ai made in the installation video, “The subject doesn’t change. The interpretation does.” The 18th century nationalist ideals that prompted the Anglo-French destruction of Yuangmingyuan have only re-materialized into new regimes, and Ai Weiwei’s zodiac heads stand to remind us.

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