Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” at Somerset House
The bronze sculptures are one set of two. The other currently on show in Central Park, New York. The exhibition is Weiwei’s first outdoor public sculpture in London. He also has the privilege of being the first contemporary artist to be featured in the courtyard of Somerset House.
The fountain clock of Yuanming Yuan featured the animals of the Chinese zodiac, each spouting water at two hour intervals. In 1860, the Yuanming Yuan was ransacked by French and British troops. The animal heads were stolen. Seven of the twelve heads have been located but the whereabouts of the other five remains unknown.
In this work Ai Weiwei continues his on-going fascination of the “fake” and the interpretation of copies in relation to originals. Due to the fate of the original heads of Yuanming Yuan, this group of sculptures also focuses attention on the issues of looting and repatriation.
On visiting Somerset House today it was great to see the amount of people enjoying Weiwei’s work. The young children were running around the fountains, naming each animal as they went. Some tourists took advantage of the photo opportunity. Others chose to read the back story of the piece and also watch the film which showed the sculptures being made and installed. The one thing I love about art is that each person takes something different away from a piece. Several things struck me when seeing this installation. The first was the size of each sculpture. In comparison to the relatively less than grand originals Weiwei’s “copies” are approximately 10 feet high on their stands. Each head itself is around 4 feet high and 3 feet wide. This up-scaling appears to focus our attention more on these “fakes” than the originals. I feel that as they are re-creations Weiwei felt that he needed to do something extravagant with the sculptures to make them as appealing as the originals that adorned the fountain clock of Yuanming Yuan.One thing I was left wondering the motives for creating two lots of re-creations. I wonder whether this is to draw attention to the fate of the original structures. Some have been recovered by the Chinese at great cost – (The Horse structure cost a Chinese businessman $8.9 million in 2007). The head of the rabbit and the rat are in the private collection of Yves Sant Laurent. China’s NationalTreasure’s Fund won the heads at auction in 2009 but have refused to pay for the items. The remaining five are still missing. Is it a case of Weiwei in some way dazzling us with fakes? If nothing else he has brought to issue to the attention of the Western World.
Ai Weiwei’s social activist status has made him a very controversial figure with Chinese authorities. He, along with his studio partner and other assistants were detained by the authorities in Beijing on April 3rd 2011. In a cruel twist of fate his whereabouts are unknown…much like the remaining five zodiac heads.