Art review: Chinese dissident artist’s work on view in Cleveland

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (detail), 2010. Ai Weiwei (Chinese, born 1957). Bronze. Private Collection, USA. � The Cleveland Museum of Art

What year were you born? 2013 is the Year of the Snake according to the Chinese zodiac, running from Feb. 10, 2013, (the Lunar New Year/Spring Festival of China) to Jan. 30, 2014.

The Chinese zodiac consists of 11 real animals — rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig — and one mythical beast, the dragon. There are many sites on the Internet where you can look up your sign and the attributes of someone born in your birth year.

Through Jan. 26, 12 Chinese zodiac signs can be seen in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s new Ames Family Atrium in the installation Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by the controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

The installation can be enjoyed at this level. You don’t need to know anything more than birth dates to find your sign or those of your friends and family. It’s as simple as that. The larger-than-life zodiac heads can be appreciated merely for what they represent: beautifully rendered sculptures of aspects of the Chinese zodiac.

Or you can go to the next level of appreciation and see them as a commentary on Chinese society and history. This installation is a reinterpretation of an 18th-century Qing imperial fountain that was pillaged by invading Europeans. It raises issues of international cultural looting, the nature of cultural patrimony and contemporary China’s relationship to its own history.

On another level, it represents cross-cultural “pollination” and the extent to which such exchanges occurred between China and the West from the 17th century onward.

The heads are almost exact replicas of a calendar fountain built for a section of the Yuanming Yuan garden of emperor Qianlong in the mid-8th century by the Italian Jesuit missionary artist Giuseppe Castiglione, in a cluster of Western-style buildings.

At the same time, the Yuanming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) was inspiring Europe. Sir William Chambers, architect to the king of England, was the first to make Chinese gardens known in Europe. In A Dissertation on Oriental Gardening, he refers to the Yuanming Yuan gardens, and in 1750-1757 he constructed the first example in England of a Chinese garden.

The idea spread to France and Germany. The Chinese-English style meant that natural curves displaced geometric lines, that streams were given a winding course, that high ground could be preserved, and that turf should be cultivated instead of sandy open spaces.

As Chinese landscaping and architecture were being copied in Europe so enthusiastically, the emperor of China was building in his summer palace grounds a set of European buildings and surrounding them with the old-fashioned formal gardens that Europe was giving up. The Western-style palaces were meant to house and display imperial treasures, particularly those from the West.

In 1860, the Yuanming Yuan was looted and burned by British and French troops in the Second Opium War (1856-60). Its treasures were carted off to Europe, its usable fragments scavenged. (Ironically, the ornately carved stone fountains and palaces of the European section survived.)

Of the many works stolen, the 12 bronze heads depicting the animals of the Chinese zodiac, designed as spouts for an elaborate fountain, are what have been reproduced here. These heads have taken on a symbolic heft far beyond their original intent and function. Over the past two decades they have been transformed into a metaphor for the cultural achievements of the mid-Qing era, the losses suffered in 1860 and the humiliations that followed.

Seven heads are accounted for; the whereabouts of the remaining five are unknown. In Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Ai Weiwei reunited the 12 animals, reinterpreting the extant heads and re-envisioning those that are missing.

In place of the seated human figures on which the original heads rested, he presents each animal head on a slender column of metal, almost as if it were being held aloft by a column of water.

The work was conceived in two formats: bronze oversized heads for outdoor public art; and gold, a smaller set for museum display, closer in size to the originals. The work debuted at the Bienal de Sao Paulo in 2010, and an international, multiyear tour was launched.

Ai Weiwei has a unique ability to choose works that operate conceptually on many levels, and the more we know about the work, the deeper into its significance we can delve.

He is a social activist and critic of the Chinese government as well as an artist and architect, and his views have had repercussions.

On April 3, 2011, uniformed officers detained Ai Weiwei at Beijing Capital International Airport as he was boarding a plane for Hong Kong. Aside from a brief exchange with his wife, he was held in isolation for 81 days, then released. He is still subject to serious restrictions by the government, and his passport has been seized. He’s under constant surveillance and forbidden from saying anything about the time he spent in detention.

He has, however, made a few videos posted on Aiweiwei.com that will give the viewer some idea of what his detention was like and the surveillance of his every move. He also created a series of dioramas of his imprisonment that went on view at the Venice Biennale. It’s a stark reminder of just how far China has to go toward freedom of expression and all the other freedoms we take for granted.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or dtgshinn@att.net.


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