“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold”

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.

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