Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” on view at the Sao Paulo Biennale (image via

What’s your sign? Chinese artist and international icon Ai Weiwei will be bringing his own custom-designed set of Zodiac sculptures to New York City’s Pulitzer Fountain at the Plaza Hotel (59th Street and 5th Ave) May 2 through July 15, reports the New York Times. The works seem harmless, but they have a historical context that gives them a deeper meaning.

Initially presented at the Sao Paulo Biennale, Ai’s zodiac sculptures are based on a historical work, the 18th century fountain-clock created at the Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat outside of Beijing. The NYT explains,

Designed in the 18th century by two European Jesuits at the behest of the Manchu Emperor Qianlong, the fountain-clock featured each animal of the Chinese zodiac, spouting water at two-hour intervals. In 1860, French and British troops ransacked the Yuanming Yuan, pillaging the heads. Seven of them have since been located — the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, monkey and boar — the other five are still missing.

The Plaza Hotel in New York, where the Zodiac heads will be installation (image via

Of course, the political background of this piece goes unstated in the short write up (which initially called Ai “Mr. Weiwei,” now corrected). The original 18th century Zodiac heads have been slowly resurfacing over the past decade. The tiger, ox and monkey heads came up at auction by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2000, and the sale raised an instant controversy among Chinese demanding the return of the pieces (or repatriation) to their rightful owner, the Chinese nation, on the basis that the heads were removed from China during a period of war and conflict (the Yuanming Yuan was burned, largely destroyed and looted by British troops during the second Opium War, an act ordered by Lord Elgin, son of the Elgin who bought the now-contested Greek marbles). While protests stalled the auction, the pieces were snapped up by China Poly Group, a Chinese governmental organization, for $4.2 million.

Other heads that have come up for sale have been bought by Stanley Ho, a Chinese art collector and industry tycoon who has since donated several of the pieces to the state. The latest scandal came up in 2009, when the rabbit and rat heads came up for sale from the estate of Yves Saint Laurent at a Christie’s auction in Paris. Again, protest ensued (check out this Facebook group). When auction time came, mysterious Chinese bidder Cai Mingchao bought the pieces for record amounts — $20,297,268 per head — but then refused to pay the bid price. The bidding, he said, was a “patriotic act.” The bronze heads currently remain at Christie’s as the auction house tries to find a home for them. Taiwan refused them as a gift, not wanting to raise the ire of mainland China.

The fact that Christie’s refuses simply to return the works to Beijing when it is already willing to give them away is ridiculous. This isn’t about the government, it’s about a nation’s people and a shared history of art and cultural production. In my view, the pieces should by all rights be returned to China just as classical Greek artifacts and Aztec and Mayan works are being repatriated to their respective countries. It’s a testament to cultural hubris that more haven’t been returned.

Given this context, the subtext of Ai’s reconstruction Zodiac piece is the reconstruction and reclaiming of a Chinese artistic and historical identity. What might look like anodyne fun to viewers in New York City is actually an eminently nuanced political gesture as Ai makes his own restored version of a still-fractured Chinese artifact.

Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” sculptures will be installed at the Pulitzer Fountain beside the Plaza Hotel (59th Street and Fifth Ave, midtown Manhattan) from May 2 through July 15, 2011.

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...

One reply on “Why Ai Weiwei’s NYC Zodiac Is a Political Gesture”

  1. Christie’s had nothing to do with the attempt to gift the bronzes to Taiwan. The bronzes still belong to Pierre Berge, not the auction house, and he was the one who had discussed gifting the works to Taiwan, but reconsidered.
    Additionally, because the works do not belong to the auction house, whether or not to give the Qing bronzes to China is not Christie’s decision to make.

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