Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads

This is the last day when visitors will be able to view Ai Weiwei’s latest installation at Somerset House. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads has attracted extensive media attention, partly owing to the political controversy surrounding its creator. It has been on display since the 12th of May, just over a month after Ai Weiwei’s notorious arrest whilst attempting to board a plane to Hong Kong. He was released on bail just this week, after more than two months of detention. This development was met with guarded celebration by the art world and human rights campaigners alike.

His imprisonment has cast a sinister and pervasive shadow over this exhibition. It has served as a chilling reminder that, for some, political censorship is a very real fear. Ai Weiwei has continued to produce contentious work, seemingly undeterred by such threats. This installation is no exception. He has crafted twelve bronze animal heads, each representing a sign of the zodiac, which are positioned around the courtyard fountains at Somerset House.

Taken as they are, these constitute an imposing display of traditional Chinese culture. The exaggerated size of the animal heads makes them especially fearsome when viewed up close. It is only at such a range, however, that the visitor can gain an impression of the incredible detail in each sculpture. The snake and dragon were particularly striking in this respect, and were personal favourites of mine.

The history of these figures is, however, a sensitive issue for the Chinese people. They represent enlarged versions of those which featured as part of an 18th century clock fountain in the gardens at Yuanming Yuan. The originals were commissioned by Emperor Qianlong, a Qing dynasty emperor, and created by two European Jesuits. The animal heads were taken when the gardens were ransacked by British and French troops in 1860. Knowing this, we can now see that this exhibition recalls a difficult period in Chinese history and reopens certain wounds. Such a reminder is unlikely to be welcomed by the Chinese authorities.

Ai Weiwei’s bail conditions state that he cannot speak to the media or, allegedly, communicate via Twitter. He is ostensibly free, but the danger is far from past.

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