Ai Weiwei interprets the Zodiac for you

At the Portland Art Museum 12 gilded animal heads are more than they seem

This is what happens these days when you try to write about contemporary art, or at least the NEWS about contemporary art, and specifically the news about Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

Last week Ai Weiwei’s son, six-year-old Ai Lao, accepted Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award on behalf of his father. The ceremony took place in Berlin, and Ai Weiwei is forbidden to leave China, so Lao, “buttoned up in a blue blazer, jeans and Velcro sneakers,” according to The Guardian, had to stand in. Ai’s co-recipient? Joan Baez. The award is intended to recognize human rights leadership and the fight against dictatorships, crimes against humanity, torture, repression and censorship, the Guardian helpfully pointed out (after telling us about the Velcro sneakers). Ai certainly qualifies, and maybe it should give Americans pause that Baez does, too.

Then Tuesday, the art world got its revenge on Weiwei. Artnet reported that Sean Parker, the tech business guy who founded Napster and whose role in the build-out of Facebook was portrayed in a less than favorable light by Justin Timberlake in the movie “The Social Network”—THAT Sean Parker—shelled out $4.4 million for Weiwei’s gilded bronze sculpture set Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold (2010), one of eight editions plus four artist’s proofs of the same set. Maybe ArtNet is wrong about Parker’s purchase (no one else has reported it yet), but the website even seemed to know the identity of a competing bidder in the February auction.

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, 2010, Bronze with gold patina, Dimensions variable. Private Collection. Images courtesy of Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, 2010, Bronze with gold patina, Dimensions variable. Private Collection. Images courtesy of Ai Weiwei.

So, right, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold (2010) is now gleaming in the Portland Art Museum’s Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Sculpture Court for the summer. And as with the museum’s display of the Francis Bacon triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” soon after it sold for a then-record $142.4 million at auction, the commerce has a good chance of obscuring the experience Weiwei may have intended, even though it’s far less than what the Bacon fetched. And the Chinese power politics that have ensnared Ai, who has cultivated the habit of speaking truth to power, certainly is impossible to ignore at this point.

Or what do I know? Maybe the sale and the Amnesty International award will lead directly to the result Ai wants. After all, his art can suck you into considerations that we don’t necessarily consider directly “aesthetic.” Following in the tradition of Duchamp, Johns and Warhol, whom he studied during the 1980s in New York City before heading back to China, Ai makes art that twists and turns away from the object at hand, back to art history and the cultural values it contains and the complexities of the cultural present. Not that art history is all that cut-and-dried, when it comes down to it. Which is sort of what Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is all about.

Just for the record, I checked to see if the 12 animal portraits at the Portland Art Museum belonged to Sean Parker, but the museum’s Ian Gillingham responded that “this is a different set, on loan from an anonymous owner courtesy of Heather James Fine Art.” And then I felt a little bit bad that I’d asked at all, though it was reflexive really, “news” and celebrity having dissolved into the same soup in these demented times.


The art museum’s exhibition is the second time Ai Weiwei’s work has shown here. The first was Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn, a traveling show that visited the Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2010. That was an excellent introduction. The show explored the venerable Chinese ceramic tradition dating back to neolithic times but did Duchampian and Warholian and Rauschenbergian things to it. For example, Ai presented his famous Coca-Cola Urn: on an authentic Han Dynasty urn (206 BCE–9 CE) he reproduced the famous script Coca-Cola log. The show also featured replicas of historical styles created in the old porcelain-making village of Jingdezhen, which has been in the ceramic business for 1700 years or so. Ai updated these with his own designs: I was drawn to the watermelons.

Ai Weiwei, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn"/Museum of Contemporary Craft

Ai Weiwei, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn”/Museum of Contemporary Craft

Most famously, the show included the photo triptych, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” which captures the artist holding out the urn, the urn in mid-air, then the shattered vessel in the air. The artist looks calmly and directly into the camera during the shots. I think of it as similar to Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing, which is exactly what the title says it is.

When this photographic triptych was included in an Ai retrospective at a Miami museum, a local artist picked up one of Ai’s vessels and dropped it in the same way, primarily to protest the failure of the museum to include local artists in its exhibitions. I couldn’t find a record of what Ai thought about that particular intervention.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn doesn’t seem like random iconoclasm or the playing out of a personal need to transgress, though maybe those figure, too.

Contemporary art often contains an implicit question: Once you’ve glanced over it a time or two, how interested are you in learning more about it? And thinking more about it? And thinking about its cultural past, its cultural present and its cultural future, as well as your reaction to that thinking and how it makes you feel? How much thinking are you prepared to do, and once you’re done, what are you prepared to do about all that thinking?

Ai’s work opens that door.


Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold offers to plunge you into some pretty detailed thinking spirals. (Another six sets plus two artist’s proofs with larger heads are not gilded.) The Portland Art Museum has artfully shaped and lit this display of the animal heads—Monkey, Pig, Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Horse, Chicken, Bear, Dog, Snake and Dragon—and supplied some fodder for your thought in the form of wall displays that explain the history of these gilded bronze sculptures.

The heads were inspired by a similar set of 12 representing the Chinese Zodiac, which were designed in the 17th century by two Europeans (Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoit) as part of a fountain in a palace complex, Yuanming Yuan, outside Beijing. In one section, the gardens and palaces followed European designs, and the heads were part of that section. They even spouted water every two hours.

The grounds were sacked and looted by Anglo-French soldiers during the Second Opium War in 1860 (a rather disgusting bit of imperialist history all around), and the 12 heads were stolen. In recent years, seven of those have been repatriated to China, which insisted they were part of its cultural patrimony. The other five are missing and presumably still in private hands somewhere. The last two of the animals to return, Rat and Rabbit, fetched 30 million Euros at auction, except the buyer was a fake and the seller said he would give the sculptures back to China for free if Tibet was freed and the Dalai Lama could return. Right. Eventually, the animals were bought and given back to China, though an Airbus contract might have figured in the transaction.

For Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads Ai followed the designs of the seven heads in China now fairly closely. For the other five, though, he became a bit more fanciful, most obviously in the spectacular dragon and rooster. And they are a modest pleasure to behold, though that’s not really the point.

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, 2010, Bronze with gold patina, Dimensions variable. Private Collection. Images courtesy of Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, 2010, Bronze with gold patina, Dimensions variable. Private Collection. Images courtesy of Ai Weiwei.

Instead, Ai is asking us to consider what cultural history is at stake in the original sculptures. “Whose patrimony is it?” he asks—an excellent question since Europeans designed them. How do we make sense of China’s insistence on reclaiming them? And then what do we do with the multiple sets Ai has created? Are they originals, too? Do they celebrate Chinese cultural history or European? Are they Chinese art or Chinese via European or…what? And why the focus on these particular sculptures and not the hundreds of others looted by the European army at the same time? And finally, how can they inspire our outrage when the looting all happened 150 years ago and so much so much more horrible has happened since?


We could give up, I suppose, and say that it doesn’t matter, except that it does to Ai. And it does to the Chinese government and then anyone doing business with the Chinese government, which at this point is…everyone. For me, Ai has created a commentary that somehow manages to celebrate these sculptures and simultaneously demonstrate the deep irony around contemporary considerations of them, especially by governments and businessmen. Somehow, they are important to national identity, and Ai picks at this in subtle way.

The Chinese government is befuddled by Ai. On the one hand, he collaborated with the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron to design the famous Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics, and  because he’s among the best known artists in the world, he’s a source of national pride. But he keeps doing things like dropping old urns and saying unflattering things about the Chinese government. He was subsequently arrested in 2011 and kept in solitary confinement for tax evasion, his studio was demolished, and he was forbidden to leave the country. All of this is detailed on Wikipedia.

So, a consideration of Ai Weiwei is going to be messy, a mixture of art, history, politics, and cold, hard cash. He’s responsible directly for some of the confusion—I’d even say it’s part of the point of what he does. But a lot of it is indirect, the world’s interpretation of Ai, how it deals with the freedom of artists (and other citizens) and entangles them in its self-defense mechanisms.

Fortunately, the museum has scheduled some special events to help us sort through some of this. For example, Kuiyi Shen, a professor at UC San Diego will give a lecture, “The World of Ai Weiwei,” on June 28, and Lillian M. Li of Swarthmore College will talk specifically about the Zodiac Animals on August 23 (“The Zodiac Animals in the Garden of Perfect Brightness: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and Cultural Patrimony”). And a couple of excellent documentaries about the artist will screen at the Northwest Film Center during the run of the show, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (4:30 pm, July 12) and Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (4:30 pm, July 19).

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    Thank you for this Barry. I had a quick look at them on Tuesday and just on their own terms, without much knowledge of what we like to call the “concept” thought they were marvelous on their own terms.

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