Ornate illustration of a Chinese palace.

Year of the Monkey: The History Behind Ai Weiwei’s ’Zodiac Heads’

In Chinese culture, those born in the year of the monkey tend to be quick-witted and capable of change. Perhaps it’s only fitting then that during the year of the monkey Carnegie Museum of Art is playing host to artist Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads installation, a series of large-scale sculptures that have temporarily transformed the institution’s historic Hall of Architecture. As one of the most influential contemporary artists in China, Ai is already well-known for his practice of altering Chinese traditional objects into the bold readymades often foregrounded in his exhibitions. He is also known for blurring the line between art and politics in a way that challenges both public perception and historical truths. With the Zodiac Heads, his artistic ambitions have converged.

The Zodiac Heads are inspired by the water clock zodiac fountain in the heart of the Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat located in the Northwest outskirts of Beijing and designed by two European Jesuits of the Haiyan Tang. The original heads of the fountain were looted by British and French expeditionary forces during the Second Opium War in 1860, and consequently the 12 animals of the zodiac—rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig—were lost to history for more than a century. As the millennium neared, however, that all changed. In the late 1990s seven of the sculptures began appearing, one after another, at international art auctions. This revelation sparked controversy between the Chinese government, who regarded the animal heads as national treasures and demanded their return, and the Western auctioneers, art dealers, and buyers who simply viewed them as artworks to be sold at a profit. Perhaps what’s most compelling about Ai’s Zodiac Heads is how the sculptures act as a salient response to this controversy—broaching the topic of cultural appropriation while spotlighting Chinese contemporary attitudes towards the historic trauma of looting by the West.

Diagram of the Zodiac Heads with years and attributes for each animal. 1 Rat Attribute: Wisdom. 2 Ox Attribute: Industriousness. 3 Tiger Attribute: Valor. 4 Rabbit Attribute: Caution. 5 Dragon Attribute: Strength. 6 Snake Attribute: Flexibility. 7 Horse Attribute: Forging Ahead. 8 Goat Attribute: Unity. 9 Monkey Attribute: Changeability. 10 Rooster Attribute: Being Constant. 11 Dog Attribute: Fidelity. 12 Pig Attribute: Amiability.
The years and traits attributed to each of the Zodiac Heads.

The Zodiac Heads‘ arrival in Pittsburgh—particularly their installation in Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Architecture—is particularly meaningful for both Ai Weiwei and the museum. Since debuting at the historic Pulitzer Fountain in New York in 2011, this iconic series has traveled to ten countries, and ten different states within the United States. But this installation of the heads represents the first time the sculptures have been installed indoors. It also represents the first time that Ai has been able to see the sculptures in-person since the return of his passport, which has been restricted by the Chinese government for over four years.

The placement of the Zodiac Heads in the museum’s Hall of Architecture offers an intentional contrast. By installing the sculptures amid the museum’s expansive cast collection, which contains various reproductions of classical façades and fragments from throughout the Western world, a sense of historical context is ever-present. Reinterpreted as a cultural and political remnant of China’s past, the Zodiac Heads echo each other, creating a uniquely immersive experience that brings together the East and the West, inspires thinking of the relationship between authenticity and reproduction, and encourages debate over issues of ownership and belonging with regard to cultural artifacts.

The sculptures themselves are no small undertaking—each ranging in weight from 1,500 to 2,100 pounds and standing roughly 10-feet tall. And the casting process was sophisticated. To perfectly capture all the details without shrinks or cracks, Ai worked with a team of craftsmen to conduct experiments using different materials including plaster, rubber, fiberglass, and clay.

The process to create each sculpture was deliberate. For the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, goat, and monkey—of which the originals have each surfaced at auction—Ai mimicked the designs by the European Jesuits. But for the dragon, snake, goat, rooster, and dog—of which the originals have never surfaced—Ai relied on a mix of reference material and imagination. Upon closer examination, you’ll see that the designs for the dragon and goat resemble typical Chinese animal symbols often seen in the early Ming dynasty; the snake takes on a modern, scientific look; and the rooster and dog appear more realistic.

When visitors wander through the inward-facing Zodiac Heads in the Hall of Architecture, they observe the animals’ expressive faces, compare one animal with the other, and take selfies with their individual zodiac signs before leaving with personal stories. In this way, while the discussion of cultural appropriation underpins the exhibition, the participation inspired among visitors of all ages is in line with the artist’s primary intent. As Ai Weiwei has said: “I want this to be seen as an object that doesn’t have a monumental quality; but rather a funny piece—a piece people can relate to or interpret on many different levels, because everybody has a zodiac connection.”

The author of this article and artist featured take a selfie together by the exhibit.
Ai Weiwei takes a selfie with the author, Yi (Sally) Cao, among the Zodiac Heads in the Hall of Architecture. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

The exhibition Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads is on view in the Hall of Architecture at Carnegie Museum of Art until August 29, 2016.

The exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei is on view at The Andy Warhol Museum until September 11, 2016.

Image (top): Yuanming Yuan etching, via Wikipedia.