Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Pictures of the Day: Ai Weiwei's Animal Zodiac

Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads at Pulitzer Fountain

A dear friend of mine proudly wore her "Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei?" T-shirt I brought to her from Hong Kong as we visited his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads sculptures at the Pulitzer Fountain next to the Plaza Hotel.

I had blogged about the sculptures back in early May when they were officially unveiled and at the ceremony Mayor Michael Bloomberg passionately called for Ai's release a month after he was detained at Beijing Capital International Airport on his way to Hong Kong.

Which heads are based on the original and which made up?
Ai hasn't said much since his release last week except to thank Hong Kong supporters for pushing for his release. He's very limited in what he can say to the media, but one hopes he will find ways to get around the system because surely a year is a long time for him to keep his mouth shut.

People manning the booth by the fountain were selling T-shirts that were not calling for Ai's release, but instead of his zodiac animals and used the opportunity to ask the public what animal sign they were born in. For New York it seemed kind of kitsch, but then again perhaps they were trying to capture the tourist market.

Nevertheless, it was interesting to note that not all the original animals heads survive and of the 12, five are missing. Ai had to create what he thought they might have looked like. We asked which five they were, but the guide didn't know and the souvenir book didn't give many hints either.

Personally I thought the snake looked quite modern, but had no clue about the rest. For sure it's not the rat, rabbit, boar, tiger monkey or ox, though Ai's rabbit and tiger look quite different from the originals.

In any case, it's brilliant to display these animal heads which has many layered meanings. For the Chinese government it's a source of national humiliation, or that's how it wants to paint the country as being defeated by foreign powers during the Opium War. And the government is currently encouraging its people to repatriate Chinese treasures back to the motherland as a sign of its power. Though that was busted in 2009 when a man called Cai Mingchao successfully bid for the rabbit and rat heads at the Christie's auction of Yves St Laurent's possessions, but then refused to pay for them.

However when you look at the animal heads, they are hardly Chinese -- in fact they were designed by Jesuit priests. So how are they really Chinese? And then another layer is Ai poking fun at things in China that are questioned for being fake or real and he's displaying the fake ones in a very public place. Originally these heads were part of a fountain at the old Summer Palace and only for the amusement of the emperor and his court. Now they are for everyone to see.

Apparently these sculptures will only be in New York for another two weeks or so before they will be moved to another city in the United States. So I was very lucky and happy to see them.

1 comment:

  1. nice works of art. the rape of yuan ming yuan has been deemed as a national shame for the past centuries. to restore the integrity of this set of animal heads will reinvigorate the chinese national spirit and pride. ai weiwei certainly did that.