Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, will open a special exhibition of sculptural works by Chinese dissident-artist Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) on Saturday, March 24, and it will be on display in the museum’s Rothschild Gallery through December 30. This is the first New England showing of Ai Weiwei’s gilded Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads.
His series drew worldwide attention in spring 2011 when the artist was detained by Chinese authorities a month before the work debuted in New York City. Held incommunicado for 81 days, Ai Weiwei was released after an international protest campaign was mounted by museums, artists and concerned citizens. Upon his release he was put under house arrest and forbidden to travel outside Beijing until July 2015.
A re-envisioning of the 12 animals of the ancient Chinese zodiac, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads dates back to a dark episode with respect to China’s relationship with the West. During the Second Opium War in 1860, the Yuanming Yuan (or Garden of Perfect Brightness) was destroyed and looted by British and French troops. An imperial retreat built a century earlier during the Qing Dynasty (1636 – 1912), the Yuanming Yuan featured an ornate, European-style section with grand fountains, gardens and palaces. At its center was a zodiac water-clock fountain with spouting bronze-headed figures representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac. The 12 animals marked the hours of the day. The entire complex was ransacked long ago, but in recent years the seven bronze zodiac heads that survive have become fraught symbols of the cultural achievements of the Qing era, the nation’s period of humiliation by the West. Ai Weiwei’s re-interpretation of the work makes a statement about the “fake” in relation to the “real.”
The Zodiac Heads have been seen by millions of people worldwide, making it one of the most viewed sculpture projects in the history of contemporary art.
Ai was born in Beijing in 1957. When his father, a poet and intellectual, was denounced by Maoists in 1959, the family was sent to a rural labor camp for 16 years. After the death of Mao in 1976 the family returned to Beijing, where Ai studied at Beijing Film Academy before moving in 1981 to the United States, where he lived in New York’s East Village for a decade. On his return to China he helped establish the Beijing East Village contemporary art scene. In 2011, after a period of escalating conflict with Chinese authorities, he was arrested, purportedly for tax evasion. He now lives in Berlin, Germany.
The exhibition is presented at the Farnsworth Art Museum courtesy of Heather James Fine Art.