Sculpture unveiled as Artist is absent

Librado Romero/The New York Time

Artist Ai Weiwei has been in the custody of the Chinese government for nearly two months now in spite of the international art community’s efforts to free him. On Wednesday, the artist’s first public work “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” was officially opened in front of The Plaza Hotel. Mayor Bloomberg oversaw the proceedings.

Roberta Smith reports for The NYTimes:

“Zodiac Heads” is a Conceptual work bodied forth as bronze sculpture that my colleague Holland Cotter rightly predicted would look “winsome” if you didn’t know the back story, but that becomes more subversive if you do. The heads are enlarged versions of those that were designed in the 18th century by European Jesuits for the Manchu emperor Qianlong as part of a famous fountain clock in the European-style gardens of the Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, near Beijing. (Each of the originals spouted water for two hours a day, which may explain why the mouths of Mr. Ai’s copies are open, as if they are noisily expressing themselves.)

The heads were looted when this vast complex of buildings and gardens was ransacked and burned by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860, an event that remains a signal symbol of national humiliation. They began to resurface in 2000, and at this point the Chinese government has retrieved five of them (ox, tiger, horse, monkey and boar).

Another two (rat and rabbit) were part of the Paris sale of the collection of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, in 2009. The Chinese government sued unsuccessfully for their return; they were successfully bid on by a Chinese collector who then refused to pay for them as an act of patriotic protest, and they are now back in Mr. Bergé’s hands. The remaining five may be lost forever.

Knowing all this gives Mr. Ai’s piece a certain frisson, beginning with its mongrel origins (Manchurian, Chinese and European) and extending to his enlargement of the original work’s scale and reimagining of the missing heads. It is a seemingly benign work plundered by the West, now being shown to the West, triumphantly enlarged and reconstituted. But in interviews conducted before his incarceration Mr. Ai neatly sidestepped the importance of this knowledge, saying that it was not crucial for the public’s enjoyment of the work.

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