Exhibit | Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads

Photo: Ai Weiwei. Horse. 2010. Gold-plated cast bronze, 29 1/8” x 12 ¼” x 22”. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei

“We never change the subject. We only change the interpretation,” artist and social activist Ai Weiwei observed. A master contrarian with a gift for subverting context and thought, consistently adhering to his principles of exposing truth regardless of the consequences. Ai Weiwei’s latest series of work, “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads”, confronts our assumptions about the inherent value of art.

The exhibition features twelve gold-plated Chinese zodiac sculptures recreated in the likeness of bronze originals that once adorned the water fountain clock in the European-style gardens of Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat in Beijing used by members of the Qing Dynasty. Two European Jesuits serving in the court of Emperor Qianlong designed the bronzes during the 18th century, a truly rococo response to the gracious splendors of the Chinese empire. This cross-cultural pollination flourished for a century, until the Opium Wars of 1860, when the sculptures were looted by British and French troops.

Ai Weiwei. Ox. 2010. Gold-plated cast bronze, 29 1/8” x 20 1/8” x 16 7/8”. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei. Ox. 2010. Gold-plated cast bronze, 29 1/8” x 20 1/8” x 16 7/8”. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei

The sculptures have come up for auction over the years, most recently the rat and the rabbit selling for over 30 million Euros in Paris. The Chinese people protest the auctions, with no legal recourse, while Ai Weiwei observes, “They are not clear about what is most important in those so-called traditional classics. The zodiac is a perfect example to show their ignorance on this matter. “

The artist continues, “I don’t think that is a national treasure. It has nothing to do with national treasure. It was designed by an Italian and made by a French for the Qing Dynasty emperor.” By recreating the sculptures and plating them gold, Ai Weiwei adds a layer of “fake” to the conversation. What is authentic when we are talking about Chinese art? Does a Chinese artist get to remake authentic European works and compete with the original? If you are Ai Weiwei, you do. This year alone, the artist sold a small and large edition of the sculptures for US$4.4 and $5.4 million, respectively.

Ai Weiwei. Dragon. 2010. Gold-plated cast bronze, 35 7/8” x 18 1/8” x 25 7/8”. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei. Dragon. 2010. Gold-plated cast bronze, 35 7/8” x 18 1/8” x 25 7/8”. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei first discovered the remains of Yuanming Yuan as an art student in Beijing in 1978. He would visits the remains of the palace every week, along with the local farmers who built their big pens, bathrooms, and homes with carved stones left in the ruins. As an art student, his heart was touched by such pragmatic use of exquisite materials.

It is this approach to art that sets Ai Weiwei apart, for his constant questioning of the value of art is inexhaustible. He documented himself destroying a Hang Dynasty urn, and displayed a pop-color palette of freshly painted Neolithic vases. His willingness to question the power and prestige of art, to challenge our assumptions and needs for it to be something sacred, rather than profane, might just be rooted in those stones of Yuanming Yuan.

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Ai Weiwei. Boar. 2010. Gold-plated cast bronze, 27 1/8” x 16 1/8” x 20 7/8”. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei

By recreating the zodiac sculptures, Ai Weiwei restores the idea of provenance to the looted works by creating a new set of super shiny sculptures off which he can capitalize on the pleasure the West has always taken in the Chinese horoscope. Delightfully subversive, Ai Weiwei stays winning at the game of art.

Following its Phoenix premiere, the exhibition will travel on to The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia; and Tucson Museum of Art.

“Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads” is on view at the Phoenix Museum of Art through January 31, 2015, as the first stop of an international tour.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.