Ai Weiwei’s anthropomorphic army: 12 Zodiac Heads storm Somerset House London

CHINESE CONTEMPORARY ART LONDON EXHIBITIONS

It proves almost impossible to discuss Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and to even consider his work without first acknowledging his politics and, even more, his current incarceration. London-based guest writer Rajesh Punj couches the latest discussion in a recount of his experience of Ai’s “Zodiac Heads” at London’s Somerset House.

Ai Weiwei's "Zodiac Heads" at Somerset House, London, May to June 2011. Credit: Marcus Ginns. Image courtesy Somerset House Trust.

Ai Weiwei's bronze "Zodiac Heads" at Somerset House, London, May to June 2011. Credit: Marcus Ginns. Image courtesy Somerset House Trust.

Attending a press view for Ai Weiwei’s new works at Lisson Gallery, London, last month that coincided with the unveiling of the dozen bronze “Zodiac Heads” at Somerset House, I witnessed something resembling an impromptu press conference for a missing person.

Lisson gallery director Nicholas Logsdail and his colleague, the director of exhibitions Greg Hilty, eulogised the artist Ai Weiwei as if he were a child haplessly abducted; these two Lisson hard-eggs were momentarily negotiating like guardians for the return of their man. It proved a surreal moment that might otherwise have been much less ordinary. Art had, on this occasion, been bypassed by life, politics and the urgency of circumstance.

Ai Weiwei, 'Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads - Ram', 2010, bronze. Credit: Marcus Ginns. Image courtesy Somerset House Trust.

Ai Weiwei, 'Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads - Ram', 2010, bronze. Credit: Marcus Ginns. Image courtesy Somerset House Trust.

Ai himself is as much at ease with activism as he is with architecture. A sculptor, curator, photographer and filmmaker, the artist’s political notoriety is born of his art practice. With his more provocative and politically motivated works the artist appeared to have adopted a communication and promotion strategy that was as robust as the Chinese authorities’, one based on the free market mechanisms of Facebook, Twitter and email.

Given his significant impression upon art internationally, his untimely and continuing detention, which many believe has been triggered by his public criticism of the actions of the Chinese government, has motivated a unanimous call among his contemporaries for his immediate release. Much of the recent press coverage of Ai’s incarceration, however, speaks only about the inevitability of his arrest.

Click here to read our coverage of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s detention and the events that led up to it.

The artist is most popularly revered for his contribution to the Beijing National Stadium, colloquially known as the “Bird’s Nest”, created for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in collaboration with Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, and, more recently, for Tate’s Turbine Hall commission, Sunflower Seeds, for which one hundred million porcelain seeds were individually hand-painted by some 1,600 artists from China’s Jingdezhen city. Sunflower Seeds went on exhibition in October 2010 and embodied Ai’s critique of China’s political infrastructure and collective work ethic, both of which continue to operate under aging communist ideals.

Ai Weiwei, 'Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads - Rooster', 2010, bronze. Credit: Marcus Ginns. Image courtesy Somerset House Trust.

Ai Weiwei, 'Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads - Rooster', 2010, bronze. Credit: Marcus Ginns. Image courtesy Somerset House Trust.

Given his prolific ability, Ai Weiwei’s timely exhibition at Lisson Gallery, being held from May to July 2011, constitutes sculptural forms, protest poetry and films, strategically placed in both Lisson galleries, that demonstrate the artist’s ability to create works of great worth. In particular, works such as Moon Chest (2008) and Coloured Vases (2010) are exquisite reminders, if any were required, of the artists ability to manage ideas with a scholarly prowess.

Then on the other side of the city at Somerset House London there is an opportunity to see “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads”, running from May to June 2011, and for which a surreal set of bulbous bronze heads atop tall skewers placed in a formal semi circle are set against Somerset House’s Edmond J. Safra fountain.

Ai Weiwei's bronze "Zodiac Heads" at Somerset House, London, May to June 2011. Credit: Marcus Ginns. Image courtesy Somerset House Trust.

Ai Weiwei's bronze "Zodiac Heads" at Somerset House, London, May to June 2011. Credit: Marcus Ginns. Image courtesy Somerset House Trust.

These decapitated animals that have been impressively immortalised in bronze, each about four feet high and weighing some 800 pounds, with head and base ten feet from the floor, first appeared at the Pulitzer Foundation in New York, where they seemed to act as Ai’s defiant anthropomorphic army better suited, perhaps, to stand at the doors of the Chinese authorities.

Ai Weiwei’s “Zodiac Heads” are meticulous copies of eighteenth century heads that were originally rooted in the gardens of the Old Summer Palace, attached to the fountain-clock of Yuan Ming Yuan, Beijing, at the behest of Emperor Qianlong. This first set of animal heads, representing each of the twelve Chinese Zodiac signs, was ransacked by British and French troops during the Second Opium War of 1860, although some of the set recently resurfaced.

Ai Weiwei, 'Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads - Dog', 2010, bronze. Credit: Marcus Ginns. Image courtesy Somerset House Trust.

Ai Weiwei, 'Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads - Dog', 2010, bronze. Credit: Marcus Ginns. Image courtesy Somerset House Trust.

As a critique of this historical act of vandalism, Ai uses  “Zodiac Heads” to comment on the madness of cultural rights and imperial will between empires with a decorative verve that he suggests is less about direct protest and more about mobilising dialogue and facilitating ideas, creating a matrix of new possibilities. Significantly, the actual heads that were commissioned by the Manchu Emperor were not Chinese but more European in style, designed by the Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione, a leading contributor to the court at that time.

Click here to view the official catalogue brochure (29 pages; links to Google docs) for the Somerset House, London, showing of Ai Weiwei’s “Zodiac Heads”, which contains information and essays on Ai Weiwei and the works. (Brochure kindly supplied by the Somerset House Trust.)

Ai Weiwei's bronze "Zodiac Heads" at Somerset House, London, May to June 2011. Credit: Marcus Ginns. Image courtesy Somerset House Trust.

Ai Weiwei's bronze "Zodiac Heads" at Somerset House, London, May to June 2011. Credit: Marcus Ginns. Image courtesy Somerset House Trust.

Ai Weiwei has previously let it be known that his “work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity and value, and how value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings.” Given the gravity of his current situation, his disappearance from reality, “Zodiac Heads” proves that Ai is an artist with an innate ability to re-examine history as he tries to ceaselessly re-render the world as an apolitical setting for new visual languages.

Rajesh PunjRajesh Punj is a freelance art writer, curator and art collector based in London with a specialist interest in contemporary art from India and the Middle East. Proprietor of the art consultancy ART ATT, which featured at London art fairs in 2010, he has an academic background in European and American art history and curating. In 2012 he has plans for an exhibition of contemporary Iranian works in London and Paris, followed by a show of contemporary Indian works. Previously commissioned by Saatchi Gallery and Arts Council England, he writes regularly for Flash Art International, (Milan), Canvas, (Dubai), Art and Deal and Take Magazine (New Delhi) among others, and he also contributes regularly to Asian Art Newspaper.

Editorial disclaimer – The opinions and views expressed by guest writers do not necessarily reflect those of Art Radar Asia, staff, sponsors and partners.

RP/KN/HH

Related Topics: Ai Weiwei, Chinese artists, London art events

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar for more on Chinese artist Ai Weiwei


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.