Ai Weiwei's public art project Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads has been unveiled at the foot of New York's Pulitzer Fountain. The work consists of 12 bronze animal heads representing different phases of the Chinese calendar installed in a semi-circle in the shallow, stepped pools of the fountain.
The bronzes are scaled up versions of heads that originally adorned a Chinese imperial the water-clock in the Garden of Perfect Brightness in Beijing, which was looted by Anglo-French forces during the second Opium War in the 1850s. The repatriation of the heads has become cultural priority and in 2009 the Chinese Government launched a PR offensive against Christie's when the auction house attempted to sell two of the imperial bronzes as part of its Yves St Laurent / Pierre Berge auction. Berge taunted that he would give the heads for free if China vowed to “observe human rights and give liberty to the Tibetan people and welcome the Dalai Lama.” Eventually at the sale, Cai Mingchao, the Chinese bidder who offered $14m for each head, refused to pay for them and described his sabotage of the auction as a patriotic act.
In an interview with filmmaker Alison Klayman, Ai Weiwei said he was playing with the idea of real and fake, and of national symbolism. “It's a new interpretation”, he said. “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what value is, and how value relates to the current political and social understandings and misunderstandings.”
Image: Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads (detail), Pulitzer Fountain, New York