In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French troops destroyed the Qing emperor’s summer palace, Yuanming Yuan, just outside of Beijing. They looted the palace riches to bring back to Europe, including the 12 bronze animal heads surrounding the palace’s famed zodiac fountain clock. Since 2000, Chinese groups have bought back most of the seven remaining statues. But in 2009, a Chinese collector who won two of the statues in an auction caused a scandal by refusing to pay, as he said he was “bidding on moral and patriotic grounds.” The two statues remain in France.
Yet the animal heads themselves, considered a Chinese national treasure, were designed in the 18th century by a European Jesuit priest, Giuseppe Castiglione, who had been hired by the Qing emperor as an artist of the court.
Contemporary Chinese dissident artist Ai WeiWei derived inspiration from the 19th-century scandal to create his first public artwork. Ai, who is best-known abroad for his high-profile 2011 arrest and detention, is getting a lot attention this year at the Smithsonian, beginning with this first of three exhibitions. The installation “Zodiac Heads,” at the Hirshhorn Museum, features enlarged models of these original bronze statues assembled in a circle. Through this recreation, Ai challenges the idea of “national treasure.”
“They were designed by an Italian, made by a Frenchman for a Qing dynasty emperor, which actually is somebody who invaded China,” Ai, who is currently not allowed to leave his native China, told filmmaker Alison Klayman in the documentary Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry. “So if we talk about national treasure, what nation are we talking about?”
The zodiac is an ancient Chinese time cycle, which divides 12 years into animal signs: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Each sign is associated with certain characteristics that influence the people who were born under it. But the bronze animal heads reflect the Western interpretation of the Jesuit priests who created them. The animals are more naturalistic, which is common in the European tradition. “They are not exactly Chinese in appearance,” Ai said. “It is a Western understanding of a Chinese way.”
Because five of the twelve original heads have been lost, Ai had to reimagine them based on his impressions of the existing seven. His oversize interpretations of the originals add another layer onto the question of authenticity.
“My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings,” Ai said in the film.
But addressing these political and social issues has gotten him into serious trouble at home. In 2009, the Chinese government took down his blog, where Ai published a list of names of students who had died in the 2008 Szechuan earthquake, the result of an investigation into the state’s silence on the deaths. In 2010 he was placed under house arrest. A few months before his detention in 2011, the local government demolished his Shanghai studio. Since his release after international outcry, Ai has been under constant surveillance. Just a few weeks ago, he turned the surveillance into an art project, setting up web cams so people could watch him 24 hours a day on the Internet. Though the project was quickly squashed by the government, the website attracted worldwide attention. His activism on Twitter has also been a point of conflict.
Ai’s “Zodiac Heads” have already passed through São Paulo, New York, London, Los Angeles, Taipei and Houston. The Hirshhorn’s exhibition of “Zodiac Heads” has a unique element; arranged in a circle around the museum’s plaza fountain, each animal head is aligned along the compass coordinates. The rat, which is the first sign, is on the north coordinate, while the horse is on the south coordinate. “That’s how the zodiac was originally conceived,” says Hirshhorn curator Mika Yoshitake.
In May, another of his installations, “Fragments,” will go on display at the Sackler Gallery. “Fragments,” constructed from ironwood beams salvaged from Qing dynasty temples, also addresses this question of authenticity. Both the exhibitions of “Zodiac Heads” and “Fragments” are harbingers for the major survey of Ai’s work, “Ai WeiWei: According to What?” which arrives at the Hirshhorn in October.
The Hirshhorn’s zodiac fountain is already attracting interest from curious passersby. “The fact that all the animals are all facing outward really draws people in,” Yoshitake says. “For viewers, it’s really a change.”
Of course, Ai’s fame as a political dissident will also draw people to the fountain. “”Most Americans recognize his name because of his political activism. But what I want people to get out of this is that he is an artist first and foremost,” stresses Yoshitake. “Politics and activism—that’s part of his practice, but it’s not the sole thing. So I hope it gives Americans a new perspective on Ai WeiWei as an artist.”