A series of sculptures entitled “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is drawing crowds in New York, the first of five American cities where they will be exhibited. The sculptures gained notoriety because of Ai's recent arrest by Chinese authorities in what appears to be a crackdown on dissent. Another political element is inherent in the series: it's based on a painful chapter in China’s 19th century history.
Ai Weiwei's work stands out even amid the skyscrapers surrounding Pulitzer Fountain on New York's Fifth Avenue. The 12 bronze heads represent the animals of the Chinese zodiac. The artist was inspired by similar heads looted by British and French troops in 1860 at an imperial retreat during the Second Opium War. It was a humiliating period in Chinese history.
One reviewer wrote that such knowledge adds excitement to the exhibition. But Ai has said the public can enjoy the sculptures without knowing the history.
“I do love it," said a woman. "It’s an eye catcher, definitely. We drove in by bus and noticed it immediately on the bus and said, ‘What is that? We haven’ seen that there before.’"
Chinese authorities arrested Ai last month, alleging unspecified economic crimes. He is among scores of Chinese artists, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists arrested in a recent crackdown on dissent. Political analysts say the arrests seem aimed at preventing this year’s uprisings in the Middle East from spreading to China.
The U.S. display of the “Zodiac Heads” was planned long before Ai's arrest. Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society Museum in New York, admires the installation.
“I think the decision to site the work within a fountain, which harkens back to the original Zodiac Heads at the old summer palace, and the fountain was a great idea," said Melissa Chiu.
With Ai unable to come for the show, well known artists and mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke at the opening.
The mayor said all artists risk failure, rejection, and public criticism. But artists like Ai, who come from places that do not value and protect free speech, risk even more.
“His willingness to take those risks, and face the consequences, speaks not only to his courage, but also to the indomitable desire for freedom that is inside every human being," said Mayor Bloomberg.
The Asia Society’s Melissa Chiu notes that ironically the artist and the Chinese government agree about the cultural importance of the Zodiac Heads. Ai's work calls attention to the stolen originals. While some of them have been recovered, the Chinese government wants all the remaining ones returned.
The sculptures are drawing a steady stream of visitors from across the United States and even overseas.
“And I love them," said another visitor. "I think it’s fascinating to look at."
The show travels later to Los Angeles, Houston, Pittsburgh and Washington.