Ai Weiwei Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads in NYC Richard S. Chang

There’s a good story behind Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s first public commission in the United States, “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” which was recently unveiled in New York City.

In the 18th century, the Manchu Emperor Qianlong ordered the creation of 12 bronze animal heads - representing the signs of the Chinese zodiac - for a water-clock fountain in Yuanming Yuan (or Gardens of Perfect Brightness) in Beijing.

In 1860, the last year of the Second Opium War, the heads were looted by British and French troops when they ransacked the gardens. Seven sculptures - the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, monkey and boar - have been located over the past few years. Five of those are in the possession of the Chinese government. Two belong to the Yves Saint Laurent Collection in France. Five sculptures are still missing.

The Seven Heads

For “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” Ai copied the seven recovered heads in a larger scale - each is roughly four feet high, three feet wide and 800 pounds - and imagined the five missing ones.

“My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings,” the 53-year-old artist has said. “I think there’s a strong humorous aspect there.”

null Richard S. Chang

The sculptures were unveiled on May 4 at Pulitzer Fountain, across from the Plaza Hotel off the southeastern corner of Central Park in a ceremony that included a speech from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Ai was not present. He has not been heard from since he was taken into custody by the Chinese government in early April.

Instead, artists like Julian Schnabel and Shirin Neshat and other luminaries of the art world offered quotes by the artist.

“Cherish your mind, stay away from ignorance,” said the artist Brice Marden.

Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim Museum, said, “Without freedom of speech, there is no modern world, just a barbaric one.”

Although Ai helped design the renowned Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing, he is also one of the most outspoken critics of the Communist government. He has been arrested and beaten by the police. In January, his studio outside Shanghai was razed into rubble.

“I want this to be seen as an object that doesn’t have a monumental quality, but rather is a funny piece."

His latest arrest has been especially distressing. The Andy Warhol Foundation and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation are the two latest organizations to call for his immediate release.

“Artists risk everything to create,” Mayor Bloomberg said. “They risk failure. They risk rejection. They risk public criticism. But artists like Ai Weiwei, who come from places that do not value and protect free speech, risk even more than that. 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.”

Ai’s words reveal, however, he may envision a more humble aspiration for this latest installation: “I want this to be seen as an object that doesn’t have a monumental quality, but rather is a funny piece — a piece people can relate to or interpret on many different levels, because everybody has a zodiac connection.”

Zodiac Heads” will be on display at Grand Army Plaza in Central Park until July 15. The installation will then travel to Los Angeles, Houston, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.

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