Photo Saturday: Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Circle

This past week, on a sunny spring day, I went on my lunch hour to see a new public art installation in midtown Manhattan:

Zodiac Heads
Zodiac Heads Zodiac Heads
Zodiac Heads Zodiac Heads

This exhibit, “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads“, is noteworthy for being created by the internationally famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. After being chosen to design the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was considered a national hero; but when he used that prominent platform to speak out against government corruption and censorship, the thuggish despots who rule China abruptly did an about-face.

At the beginning of April, Ai Weiwei was disappeared by the Chinese government, and his status and whereabouts have been unknown since then in spite of an international campaign calling for his release. Nevertheless, the exhibits he had designed and planned before his arrest continue to be unveiled all over the world, often with pointed jabs at China during the ceremonies. (At the unveiling of this one, a curator at the Guggenheim read an apt quote: “Without freedom of speech there is no modern world, just a barbaric one.”)

These sculptures represent the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac, but their somewhat generic appearance hides a pointed message. I’ve read that they’re a deliberate homage to twelve similar sculptures which were once part of a famous fountain on the grounds of the Chinese imperial family’s Summer Palace, but which were stolen when the complex was looted, sacked and burned by the British and French during the Second Opium War of 1860. Only five have since been returned to China; two others have been found, but the owner has refused to repatriate them.

With this history in mind, the exhibit is a subtle statement about the harm done by imperialism. But under the present circumstances, it’s possible to discern another layer of meaning in it. The absence of the original sculptures was and is a long-remembered symbol of Chinese national humiliation. In their new incarnations, they more powerfully call attention to the absence of their creator – and remind the world of the shame and ignominy the current Chinese government has brought upon itself through its outrageous arrogance in believing that it can control all human expression through brutality.

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  • Hu Zeng

    It’s pretty sad to look these sculptures. They remind us a hallowing Chinese history of the past 150 years, filled with foreign invasion, humiliation and domestic brutality, oppression which continues today. Where will be the end of these miseries?
    Although recent surge of Chinese economy brings certain amount of national pride, it probably promotes more of Chinese nationalism and excuse for the regime not to reform politically. When I look at Chinese modern artistic output (music, movies, literature, fashion etc.), the quality is really not commendable. Personally, I read much more English publications than Chinese ones. It’s just not easy to find good original Chinese books nowadays. Without freedom, it’s quite difficult for art to flourish.

  • unintentionalhypocrite

    (Putting this comment again because I put the wrong link for my webpage – the identical comment I see above me should have been deleted. I don’t know if it’s visible to anyone else).
    I recently visited the Tate Modern in London, where they still had his sunflower seed installation (well, it was his concept – he paid workers to make and paint the seeds, so I feel they deserve much of the credit. Still, it was pretty neat, just by virtue of the sheer number of seeds)…I read somewhere that he was arrested for “economic crimes”, whatever that means. I get the feeling it’s not referring to something like tax evasion, the way he’s been spirited away. It could be the case that he actually has done something horrendous and deserved his arrest – but somehow I doubt it. I read about the Chinese government’s most recent guidelines for TV shows ( – can anyone tell me if this is actually true? Because this is a whole new level of ridiculous) and somehow, I doubt it.
    *goes off to make a random compilation of mythical stories*
    *Scrap that, I have my essay on Yanagi Soetsu to do*

  • Alex Weaver

    I read somewhere that he was arrested for “economic crimes”, whatever that means.

    Not what it should, I can pretty much guarantee that. >.>

  • bric

    Two of the Summer Palace heads turned up in the Estate Sale of Yves Saint-Laurent

  • bric

    Re #2 – this does appear to be true, it’s part of the build-up to the 90th Anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist party on 1st July

  • bric

    Re #2 again – out of curiosity I Googled Yanagi Soetsu, and it turns out the book on mingei I have been trying to remember for years is his ‘The Unknown Craftsman’ – thank you so much for your apparently irrelevant remark!

  • Hu Zeng

    In China, the past several years saw a strong popularity, especially among Chinese youths, of net novels (stories posted on line first before real book publication), a lot of them featured time traveling. Most of time, they tell stories about a man/woman mysteriously go back to an ancient Chinese dynasty and achieve some amazing things partly because of his/her “advanced” knowledge. Honestly, I found some of them a little bit cheesy and over the top. So many of this sort of fantasy also make time-traveling overused and banal. But to ban them outright is just ridiculous. Maybe the regime is annoyed that so many people are still obsessed about the glorious Chinese past, but not its recent “successful” rule. A typical paranoid reaction.

  • Ebonmuse

    If the Chinese government deserves credit for anything, it’s that they genuinely have lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty through economic reforms (although, I’ve heard, they continue to publicly maintain that China is officially a communist state, despite this being obviously untrue).

    Still, the belligerence with which they react to even the most tentative and peaceful efforts at political reform, such as Liu Xiaobo and Charter08, is astounding to me, as is the colossal effort they put into censoring the internet. What do they hope to achieve? There’s no Iron Curtain anymore; millions of Chinese people go abroad, travel the world, work in other countries. They must know perfectly well about the freedoms available in the wider world and how human rights are denied to the citizens of China. Does the government really think that they can prevent this from becoming common knowledge among the people?

  • Hu Zeng

    Economically, China is almost as capitalistic as US. Politically it’s still more like a socialist country. It’s an odd hybrid. Undoubtedly, poverty reduction is the biggest achievement of the government. But our standard obviously can’t stay at simply eliminating abject poverty.

    I think Chinese government is smart enough to know they can’t possibly block everything outside. However, there are 1.3 billion+ people, most of them have never been abroad. The government still has absolute control of conventional media and substantial grip on internet. Most importantly government also controls education. So their strategy seems to ensure that majority of people know things, largely sanitized, from outside. Then through school indoctrination (our mandatory “politics” curriculum runs from junior high to phD) and media propaganda, they consistently emphasize that “western style” democracy and its ideals don’t suit China. China is so unique that we don’t need to and better not adopt these western luxuries or hypocrites (such as human rights defined by US) . We have to develop and already found a successful “Chinese style” alternative. Don’t be surprised, many Chinese people buy this rhetoric.

  • Rollingforest

    In adopting Capitalism and Nationalism while keeping its dictatorship, China today is probably better described as a fascist nation rather than a communist one. And that is actually a good thing for America. The Cold War was less a competition between two nations and more a competition between two ideologies. China today has little interest in spreading Communism, which makes it easier for the United States to find common ground outside of China.