Since Ai Weiwei's whereabouts are still unknown after being detained by Chinese officials in early April, the world-renowned artist and human rights activist was not able to attend the unveiling of his first major public sculpture installation, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, last Wednesday at Grand Army Plaza (at 58th Street and 5th Avenue - across from Central Park, the Plaza Hotel, and Bergdorf Goodman). New York City is the first stop of the exhibition's official world tour which will be traveling across the U.S. as well as Europe and Asia.
The 800-pound, bronze sculptures represent the twelve animal signs of the Chinese zodiac (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, pig). The work was inspired by the 18th century water clock-fountain built in the gardens of Yuanming Yuan by two European Jesuits for Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty. The Yuanming Yuan gardens were raided in 1860 by British and French troops and the original animal head sculptures were looted. While only seven of the original twelve heads have ever been recovered, Ai recreated the full dozen in charming, large-scale renditions that question issues of "looting and repatriation" and explore "fake" or copied works of art (from zodiacheads.com).
The exhibition is organized by AW Asia, and while Ai could not be at the opening last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was joined by a number of artists, curators, and members of the arts community to honor the artist and read aloud some of his eloquent and rousing quotes. Mayor Bloomberg noted, "Artists risk everything to create, but artists like Ai Weiwei, who come from places that do not value and protect free speech, risk even more than that."
New York City seems an appropriate choice to kick off Wei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads tour as the artist attended Parsons and lived here for more than ten years. The artist states that the zodiac sculptures are works that can be enjoyed and understood by all - including children, people not in the art world, and casual passers-by. The stunning, playful sculptures were certainly getting lots of attention when I visited. Now if only those imprisoning Ai could understand and appreciate the artist, his artwork, and his politics as well. Learn more at zodiacheads.com and artdaily.org. Through July 15th.