A potent array of smiling animals from a certain detained Chinese artist ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
The beasts growl, teeth bared. The snake lisps, the rat stares. Twelve bronze animal heads, four-feet high and stuck on six-foot spikes, form an imposing semi-circle in the shallows of the Pulitzer fountain in New York. They are the vision of Ai Weiwei, a renowned Chinese artist, who wanted to bring the animal faces of the Chinese zodiac to what he calls his “zodiac city”. There is something light-hearted about these sculptures. They all seem to grimace with something like a smile.
Their unveiling on May 4th was notable for Mr Ai’s absence. The politically outspoken artist remains in police custody in China, having been detained on April 3rd. Speaking to a rain-sodden crowd, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, called Mr Ai “one of the most talented, respected and masterful artists of our time” (though he was also quick to note that "there is much to admire about China and the great Chinese people"). In tribute to Mr Ai, a dozen of local artists and cultural leaders read quotes from his writings. “Without freedom of speech, there is no modern world, only a barbaric one,” read Alexandra Munroe of the Guggenheim museum.
Mr Ai’s installation was inspired by an 18th-century fountain clock at the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, in Beijing. Designed by European Jesuits for Emperor Qianlong, the original animals spouted water every two hours. But the clock stopped in 1860, when the French and British destroyed the garden and looted the heads, among other things. “You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the place we burnt,” lamented Charles George Gordon, the British captain who led the mission, later a national hero. “It made one’s heart sore to burn them.” For the Chinese, the raid remains a humiliating example of Western aggression. To this day, only seven zodiac heads—the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, monkey and boar—have been recovered, two of which were part of the private collection of Yves Saint Laurent. The Chinese government has sued unsuccessfully for their repatriation.
There is something subversive in Mr Ai's choice to display these zodiac heads in the West (they will tour America and are on show in London). He has said he wanted to toy with ideas of real and fake, looting and national symbolism—ideas which inevitably seem more profound now that Mr Ai has been silenced.
Though these installations had been planned for some time, their sudden presence has served to galvanise support for the artist. There are calls to shut galleries across the world for a day in his honour. Anish Kapoor, a British sculptor, has dedicated to Mr Ai his recent "Leviathan" sculpture at the Grand Palais in Paris. What was designed to be a somewhat provocative array of cartoonish animals with smiling eyes has become a political event.
“Circle of animals/Zodiac heads” is on view at Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan until July 15th and the courtyard of Somerset House in London until June 26th. The world tour will continue through winter 2012; Picture credit: poppet with a camera (via Flickr)