Internationally acclaimed Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei has re-interpreted the twelve bronze animal heads representing the traditional Chinese zodiac that once adorned the famed fountain-clock of the Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat in Beijing. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is the artist’s first major public sculpture project.
Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads World Tour
Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is the centerpiece of a global, multi-year touring exhibition that will be presented in the United States, Europe, and Asia. The set of twelve zodiac heads was recently on display at the São Paolo Biennale in Brazil (September – December 2010). The official world tour for Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei will launch in New York City at the historic Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza near Central Park and the Plaza Hotel. The heads will be on display there from May through July 2011, with additional international and domestic venues to follow.
Designed in the 18th century by two European Jesuits serving in the court of the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong, the twelve zodiac animal heads originally functioned as a water clock-fountain, which was sited in the magnificent European-style gardens of the Yuanming Yuan. In 1860, the Yuanming Yuan was ransacked by French and British troops, and the heads were pillaged. In re-interpreting these objects on an oversized scale, Ai Weiwei focuses attention on questions of looting and repatriation, while extending his ongoing exploration of the “fake” and the copy in relation to the original.
Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads at the Pulitzer Fountain will be accompanied by a pendant exhibition at the Arsenal Gallery, located on the third floor of the Arsenal Building, which will give viewers additional background on the Chinese zodiac fountain-clock that inspired Ai Weiwei’s work, and the emperor who commissioned it.
Additionally, an accompanying full-color exhibition catalogue and a book about Ai Weiwei and the zodiac fountain of the Yuanming Yuan are scheduled for publication in 2011.
The Chinese Zodiac
In the traditional Chinese zodiac, each year is represented by one of 12 animals—rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog or boar—rotating in order through a 12-year cycle. According to Chinese culture, the animal representing a person’s birth year profoundly influences his or her personality and destiny. Contrary to Western astrology, which looks to the stars to predict one’s fate, the Chinese zodiac is influenced by traditional Chinese concepts of the five elements (earth, fire, water, metal and wood), yin and yang, and ancient calendrical cycles. 2011 is the Year of Rabbit.