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#161 ‘Zodiac Heads’ by Ai Weiwei at Somerset House

June 8, 2011

The 18th-century equivalent of those calendars with cute cartoon manga zodiac animals that chinese restaurants give away these days. Haven't ever been given one? The people in your local chinese restaurant don't like you, then.

Somerset House plays host to these twelve handsome bronze casts of the chinese animals of the zodiac this month. They look right at home in their new neo-classical surroundings, because they’re exact imitations of 18th-century art.

But wait!

In fact, it turns out that these fancy figures aren’t quite the well-behaved public sculptures they appear to be. They’re actually a portal to a rabbit-hole of war, nationalism, crime and commerce. Was that worth the wait?

You see, the original twelve heads were created for a monumental fountain in the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing. The fountain itself was designed by two 18-century european Jesuits living in China. And in the middle of the 19th century, the Summer Palace was ransacked by English and French troops, the fountain was destroyed and the heads were looted. Some later ended up being sold on the art market, and eventually were auctioned earlier this millenium.

So this is Chinese art by europeans, which was then stolen by other europeans and sold to other, other europeans, then recreated by a Chinese artist, then exhibited in europe (in this case, in the courtyard of the buildings that used to house the admiralty of one of the countries that originally stole them, for good measure.) Ahh, you say. Now I get it. It’s a comment or observation on that kind of thing. Are they european, or chinese? Original or fake? Valuable or worthless? Nationalist or anti-nationalist, traditional or radical? You may, if you wish, nod your head wisely at this point. Maybe even scratch your chin, or quietly go ‘yah, yah’.

The rabbit and rat look particularly euro-weird.

The reason that this is important is because the sculptures are by Ai Weiwei, the most famous living Chinese artist. Context is all for this art – if you don’t know the history, you’ll just think they’re rather winsome metal animal zodiac heads, some of whom have rather goofy expressions. (It’s also worth saying that when we visited after 6pm, we couldn’t find any of this context. This is because the rooms with the exposition inside are shut at this time, even though the courtyard is still open. Annoyingly unfair, or generously late-opening? Hard to say.)

Of course, no Ai Weiwei piece is complete without reminding everyone that, probably due to his anti-authoritarian stance and completely uncompromising approach to his art, Ai Weiwei was detained without charge by the Chinese authorities and incarcerated on April 3 this year.

And then BAM! proper Chinese dragon, all up in your grill. Grille? Hmm.

All for saying exactly what he wanted, in his own way. Good luck, Ai, you random beardy man-artist. Having read up on you a bit, there’s no doubt that if you’re ever freed, you’ll go right back to tweaking the nose of authority as hard as you can.

So go and see the twelve bronze heads in the courtyard of Somerset House until June 26th. They’ve got a story and a half to tell. (That bit was to you, the reader, not Ai Weiwei. Oh, you got that? Okay. Just checking.)

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