Heather James San Francisco presents Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold. These twelve sculptures depict the animals associated with the traditional Chinese zodiac. Ai Weiwei’s cycle references a European rendering of the zodiac animals designed by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione. The original sculptures were built in the eighteenth century for an elaborate water-clock fountain at the Yuanming Yuan (Old Summer Palace), a vast complex of gardens and pavilions on the outskirts of Beijing constructed under the reign of the Qing dynasty emperors and once accessible only to the elite of 18th-century Chinese society.
In 1860 during the Second Opium War, the imperial gardens were ransacked, displacing the twelve zodiac heads. To this date only seven have been recovered. On one hand, the looted heads recall a low point in the country’s international profile, the beginning of China’s “century of national humiliation.” On the other hand, the spirit of nationalism and the value the objects represent in the art world have prompted calls for repatriation.
For Ai Weiwei, the zodiac becomes fodder for the reinterpreting of cultural objects from his own historical knowledge and artistic liberty. He reworks all twelve creatures. For the missing dragon, serpent, ram, rooster, and dog, the artist makes stylistic references to the existing heads, even as he introduces influences from past dynasties, as well as scientific realism. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads engages issues of looting, repatriation, and cultural heritage while expanding upon ongoing themes in Ai Weiwei’s work concerning the “fake” and “copy” in relation to the original. As a conceptual artist sensitive to the craftspeople who create his works, the artist is able to “produce something that is a copy of an original, but not an exact copy—something that has its own sensitive layer of languages, which are different, and that bears the mark of our own time.”
As part of its ongoing mission to provide exceptional works of art to museums worldwide, Heather James Fine Art has collaborated with museums to loan and showcase this set including the Farnsworth Museum (2018), Tucson Museum of Art (2016), Portland Museum of Art (2015), and Phoenix Art Museum (2015). Ai Weiwei created two series of sculptures representing the animal symbols from the traditional Chinese zodiac: a monumental bronze edition for outdoor display and this, the smaller-scaled gold edition (made of bronze) for indoor display.