Twelve large bronze animal heads by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) were unveiled in New York City by Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Wednesday in what he described as a bittersweet moment.
Weiwei, 53, has not been heard from since he was detained by Chinese authorities at Beijing airport on April 3, an event that prompted strong international criticism. Chinese authorities have said he is being investigated for economic crimes, but have not given any specific details.
“Artists risk everything to create. They risk failure. They risk rejection. They risk public criticism,” Bloomberg said. “But artists like Ai Weiwei, who come from places that do not value and protect free speech, risk even more than that.”
“The fact that we do not know where he is or when he will be released, is very troubling,” he said.
Weiwei had been due to attend the opening of the exhibition, called Circle of Animals. The exhibit in Manhattan’s Central Park is made up of 12 bronze animal heads representing the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.
Each of the 1.2m tall animal heads weighs about 360kg and stands atop a large marble base. They are inspired by the design of the fountain-clock at the old Summer Palace, an 18th-century imperial retreat in Beijing.
Weiwei is best known for his high-profile projects such as the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing and Sunflower Seeds, a London-based exhibition composed of 100 million hand-painted porcelain seeds.
Circle of Animals will be displayed in New York until June 26 before going to London, Los Angeles, Houston, Pittsburgh and Washington.