Another bit of serendipity occurred while walking through the Central Park Zoo where we came across posters for Full Circle: Ai Weiwei and the Emperor's Fountain a sculptural installation presented by New York's wonderful Public Art Fund.
The piece which is installed at the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza, references the 18th-century zodiac fountain clock designed for the imperial compound known as the Yuanming Yuan (the Garden of Perfect Brightness) by European Jesuits.
The original fountain clock featured large-scale bronze heads of the 12 animals that make up the Chinese zodiac. To this day, the fountain heads are potent symbols for the Chinese, a painful reminder of the humiliation it suffered at the hands of the West: during the Second Opium War (1856-1860), Yuanming Yuan was ransacked, the fountain destroyed and the animal heads looted. Seven have since been located, including, famously, the rat’s head, which turned up in the auction of Yves Saint Laurent’s belongings two years ago. The hammer came down at $12 million, but the sale was cancelled after the Chinese government protested.
Ai’s heads are not exact replicas of the originals; in recasting them he has created new layers of meaning to address China’s complicated understanding of its past and its complex relationship with the West. As Ai points out, the heads are not really national treasures—designed and made by Europeans as they were—but have assumed such a prominent place in the Chinese collective consciousness on account of their history. The fact they represent the zodiac—so important to Chinese culture, as anyone who’s ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant knows—adds to their potency.
There is another set of Ai's animal heads on view in London, I assume in front of another western fountain, but it is particularly fitting these are in New York as Ai, who lived here for many years, refers to it as a “zodiac city.”
The heads are really beautiful, ranging from the simple, almost archaic mouse and monkey to the far more complicated and animated cock and dragon. There is something august and eternal about these inscrutable beasts who stare out at the world from their elegant Giacometti-like stands.
An accompanying exhibition examining the history of the fountain clock and the concept behind Ai’s piece, is on view at the Arsenal Gallery (located within the Central Park zoo). (I discovered on my visit that the Arsenal originally housed the Museum of Natural History. Something growing up in New York, I never knew.)
To add further frisson to the piece, In early April, Ai, an activist (he's been birddogging government corruption in China, including the scandal surrounding the construction of the schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake) was arrested at Beijing airport in early April.