One of China’s most visible and outspoken contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei has had a challenging relationship with Chinese authorities, who placed him under house arrest last fall and demolished his studio.
Now, Ai Weiwei has sent his first major public art installation to the United States. The monumental piece, “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” is current on exhibit in Central Park’s Grand Army Plaza, in front of the Plaza Hotel, from May 2-July 15.
“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” is inspired by a fountain-clock designed by two European Jesuits at the behest of emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. Located at the Old Summer Palace just outside Beijing, the piece featured the animals of the Chinese zodiac, each spouting water at two-hour intervals. In 1860, the Summer Palace was ransacked by French and British troops during the Second Opium War, and the animal heads were looted. Today, seven heads — the rat, rabbit, ox, tiger, horse, monkey, and boar — have been located, but the other five remain missing.
Ai Weiwei has reinterpreted the zodiac animals on an oversized scale. The 12 heads are cast bronze and positioned on bronze bases. Each head weighs approximately 800 pounds and measures approximately four feet high and three feet wide. The head and base together measure ten feet high. “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity and value and how value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings,” the artist said in a statement. “However, because “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is composed of animal heads, it’s a work that everyone can understand, including children and people who are not in the art world.”