Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) is living a heavily restricted life in Beijing after being released from detention earlier this year, but his work is speaking volumes to people in the second-largest US city.
Ai’s touring installation, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads opened two weeks ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and has been introducing people here to the work of a man about whom, until recently, they may have only read about in headlines telling of his recent detention in China.
The work is a series of 12 massive, 360kg bronze heads depicting the animals of the Chinese zodiac.
Standing among them on the museum’s sunny North Piazza, people have been posing for photos standing next to the figures, leaning against them and taking in the surface with their fingertips.
“I think he’s questioning everybody, the entire idea of possession and of cultural permission and of nationalism,” Franklin Sirmans, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, told reporters about the installation.
Zodiac will also travel to Houston, Pittsburgh and Washington.
The installation is based on a series of sculptures carved by Giuseppe Castiglione, an 18th-century Milanese artist and court painter to Ching Dynasty Emperor Kangxi (康熙). The original figures encircled a fountain in the Yuanming Yuan garden outside Beijing.
During the Second Opium War in 1860, the sculptures were looted by French and British troops. Of the original 12 figures only seven are known to exist, including two belonging to Yves Saint Laurent which turned up at a 2009 auction.
At the time, the Chinese government protested the sale, claiming the sculptures for China as a point of national pride. However, Ai was among the first to ask whether they were even Chinese art, as they were made by Italian hands.
“It’s interesting that the Chinese government used that [the auction] to take attention off of what is really happening domestically and sort of instill a sense of patriotism,” Stephanie Kwai of the Guggenheim Museum in New York said.
Ai has taken to Twitter in recent years, freely criticizing the Chinese government on various subjects ranging from the lax response to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan to the Beijing Olympics.
He was arrested in April this year and charged with tax evasion. When released in June after more than 80 days, he was sent home under heavy restrictions. He can not be interviewed by journalists, meet foreigners, use the Internet or interact with rights advocates for a year.
Still, Ai has refused to stay completely silent. Just this week, he wrote a commentary that was published on the Web site of Newsweek magazine in which he called Beijing, “a city of violence.” He criticized the Chinese government for rampant corruption and its policies toward migrant workers.