When Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, was detained for three months earlier this year, Western governments voiced dissent over the Chinese government's actions against artistic freedom of expression. Thousands of artists and human rights activists joined the call for Weiwei’s release while rumours circulated about Weiwei being tortured in prison.
Weiwei was already a thorn in the Chinese government’s side for many years, mainly due to his harsh criticism of censorship and Communist Party controls.
Weiwei was released on bail in late June.
Internationally, his art is doing very well.
His current exhibition, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is on a world tour. It debuted at the São Paulo Biennial then took off to the Pulitzer Fountain at the Grand Army Plaza in Central Park, New York (2 May – 15 July, 2011) and the Somerset House in London (11 May – 26 June, 2011).
Currently the exhibition is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and will then be on view at Hermann Park, Houston, Texas (spring 2012); the Warhol Museum and Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1 October – 31 December, 2012); and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC (fall 2012).
The installation is comprised of twelve monumental bronze animal heads, a re-creation of the famous traditional zodiac sculptures that once adorned the fountain clock of Yuan Ming Yuan, the Old Summer Palace, located just outside Beijing.
Cast around 1750, the original animal heads were located at the Zodiac fountain in Yuan Ming Yuan’s European-style gardens, which were designed by two European Jesuit priests in the eighteenth century. In 1860, British and French troops looted the heads during the destruction of Yuan Ming Yuan during the Second Opium War. Today, seven heads—the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, monkey and boar—have been found; the location of the other five: dragon, snake, goat, rooster and dog—are unknown.
In reinterpreting these objects on an oversized scale, Weiwei stimulates dialogue about the fate of artworks that exist within dynamic - and sometimes volatile - cultural and political settings, while extending his ongoing exploration of the “fake” and the copy in relation to the original.
In her comment to the Reuters news agency, Franklin Sirmans, a curator at the LACMA said:"I think he [Weiwei] is questioning everybody, the entire idea of possession and of cultural permission and of nationalism. You see little kids going up to it and interacting with it in a way that is not necessarily about the same thing you or I might be interested in. Of course, there are many other layers that come to mind as you learn more about the history behind the objects."
Each of the Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads bronze cast heads stand approximately 3 metres, from base to head. The heads themselves weigh approximately 360 kilograms and are 1.25 metres high and measure not quite one metre wide.
Ai Weiwei is known for his engagement with Chinese history as a shifting site, rather than a static body of knowledge. His adaptations of objects from the Chinese material canon going back to antiquity, such as furniture and ceramic objects, are known for their subversive wit; twisting traditional meanings toward new purposes, often by reducing the artefact in its original, pure state.
Ai Weiwei—artist, curator, architectural designer, and social activist—is perhaps the best-known and most successful contemporary artist in China.
He was born in Beijing in 1957 and is the son of acclaimed poet Ai Qing, one of the country’s finest modernist poets. Ai Qing’s work appeared in nearly every literature textbook until he was branded a rightist and exiled to the countryside.
Ai Weiwei’s birthright was simultaneously one of a cultural insider and a political outsider. Growing up in exile laid the groundwork for his future as a social activist, spokesperson for freedom of speech and fight against injustice.
Upon his return to Beijing in 1978, Ai Weiwei became an early member of The Stars (Xing Xing), one of the first avant-garde art groups in modern China. In 1981 he moved to New York where he gained attention for his artwork, whic was based on transforming everyday objects into conceptual works. Returning to China in 1993, the artist co-founded the Chinese Art Archive & Warehouse, a non-profit gallery in Beijing where he still serves as director.
Earlier this year, Ai was released from a Chinese prison after a three-month detention, which was surrounded by waves of international attention. He has since returned to work on his numerous projects.
Weiwei has exhibited in museums and galleries around the world and worked closely with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron to design the 2008 National Olympic Stadium (“The Bird’s Nest”).