“Everybody has a zodiac connection.”

Ai Weiwei Circle of Animals (detail)Chinese astrologers exclaim, you are a mouse—that is, if you were born in 1972, 1984, 1996, plus or minus every twelve years. (Never mind that we in the West typically refer to the zodiac sign as a rat, the Chinese make no distinction between the mouse and the rat; in informal writing, the character for both rodents is the same.) And if your head happens to weigh eight hundred pounds, then you just might be Ai Weiwei’s mouse.

In 2010 China’s most internationally admired artist, architect, and all-around thorn-in-the-side of the Chinese government set out to render the zodiac’s twelve animals in bronze for his first “major” public sculpture installation. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads would recall the bronze animal sculptures, “glorified water spouts,” of a water-clock fountain in the Western Gardens of the emperor’s summer palace, which the Anglo-French army had looted and leveled to the ground 150 years earlier—so-called payback for the torture of British diplomats and routing of British forces in China. Leading the destruction was Lord Elgin, who had previously “liberated” the marbles from the Parthenon and who, just days before the pillaging began, tossed off the adage, “War is a hateful business.”[1] And thus the ruins and the sculptures’ absence became a rallying cry for the post-Mao Chinese under the banner of nationalism, Western humiliation, and cultural rape—amplified more recently when a few of the bronze heads surfaced in auction houses in Paris and Hong Kong.

Viewing China’s past in a clear light Ai saw a subtle irony in the situation. The original works had been designed by an Italian Jesuit missionary and cast in France in 1750. With his well-known subversive wit and playfulness, Ai chose to reinterpret the Westerners’ interpretation of the Chinese birth chart beliefs. “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,” Ai said.[2]

The first of the twelve heads he created befittingly was the mouse, who was the first animal to show up when, according to one of the many legends, Lord Buddha summoned all creatures to gather and bid him adieu as he was leaving his earthly life. Only twelve turned up. Thanks a lot, Lord Buddha may have thought. With gratitude for those who found the time, he named a year for each of them in the order of their appearance.[3]

Ai said of Circle, “I want this to be seen as. . . a funny piece—a piece people can relate to or interpret on many different levels, because everybody has a zodiac connection.”[4] His mouse has a big grin.

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[1] Karen Smith’s “Monkey King Makes Havoc: Ai Weiwei Conducts a Carnival of the Animals,” republished, Hirshhorn Museum.

[2] From interviews published in Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Susan Delson, ed., New York: AW Asia.

[3] Theodora Lau, The Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes, Sixth edition, New York: HarperCollins, 2007, p. xiii.

[4] Interviews with Ai Weiwei, op. cit.

(Image: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Mouse/Rat, 2010, Cast bronze, 9.6 x 4.3 x 5.3 ft., Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan, Adam Reich, AW Asia, 2012, reproduced for non-commercial use, official Ai Weiwei/Circle of Animals website.)


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