Yes. He’s that artist that broke a Han Dynasty urn. Yes. He’s that artist that let people walk on thousands of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds during his Unilever project at the Tate Modern. It’s safe to say that Ai Weiwei is probably one of the most recognizable names in contemporary art today (Chinese and otherwise). He’s also the figurehead for something greater: a serious conversation about international relations and our fuzzy view of world history in this postcolonial age.
Looted in 1860 by French and British troops from the Yuanming Yuan (the Old Summer Palace), the original heads were part of an intricate water clock that represented the twelve animals of the zodiac. According to tradition, the animals were chosen by Jade Emperor when he invited all of the creature kingdom to a New Year party, and only twelve showed up. The order was established by the order in which each animal arrived. The Rat is first as it rode on the head of the Lion, but jumped off and ran ahead when they reached the party.
Over the years, the various extant heads have come in and out of circulation as collectors of antiquities put them up for auction. Seven are accounted for, but the rest are still missing, either lost or kept by a private collector that has not come forward. Every time one of the originals comes up for sale, there is a general commotion in the international art trade, and a call from China for the return of their heritage. The most recent auction, in 2009, was for the Rat and Rabbit heads and was won by a Chinese party that then defaulted on the bid as an act of defiance. The two heads had been in the collection of the late Yves Saint Laurent, and after the botched bid, they reverted to Saint Laurent’s partner. The billionaire Pinault family then acquired the heads for a little over $18 million, and donated them to China as an act of philanthropy and repatriation. It’s also important to note, however, that the Pinault family is the controlling interest in Kering, a firm that owns many luxury brands doing business around the world, including China.
However, this well-publicized version of the story is not the whole tale (nor is the exchange of diplomatic and monetary tokens). Ai says about the history of the heads: “I don’t think that [they are a] national treasure. It has nothing to do with national treasure. It’s designed by an Italian and made by the French for a Qing Dynasty emperor, which actually is somebody who invaded China. So if we talk about national treasure, which nation do we talk about?” This conversation brings to bear the history of China and notions of influence. Ai’s work up to the present has dealt a lot with these ideas. His infamous Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) sent shockwaves through the art/antiquities crowd who were used to seeing Chinese art as all urns and terracotta warriors. The artist’s point was that there is a contemporary scene within China now that is being smothered by a focus on past accomplishments and reliance on history. Breaking an artifact served as a catalyst for rethinking how we categorize Chinese art. Rather than mummifying Chinese culture and thinking about it in a mode of ethereal stasis, Ai, along with many artists and curators, are trying to go beyond their ancestral roots to engage a more contemporary community.
As an artist, Ai serves to ruffle feathers in the international and Chinese communities while still focusing on some very important issues at the forefront of a steadily globalizing art world. With the Zodiac Heads, he is getting around the preciousness of the original objects (since the market equates price to age in many cases) and talking about the social issues that the sculptures represent. By producing multiple versions of the heads on a grand scale (and gilding some for added emphasis), Ai establishes the works as conceptual symbols and not as prized commodities.
The controversy and conversation around Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is a direct result of colonialism and the imposition of Western ideas on Chinese culture. In this postcolonial age, we cannot afford to think of societies on the Asian continent as something separate from those on the European and North American by years of divergent histories and power struggles. Rather, we are all in one multi-layered state where ideas drift between strata as quickly as one season fades into the next. As a small city with big plans, it is a definite coup that Portland can play host to such an exhibition as this. The art community needs to look beyond that which has past. Look outward to the world. It’s a year of promise and prosperity and growth. It’s the Year of the Ram.
Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold (2010) is on display at the Portland Art Museum through September 13.