The series of twelve bronze Zodiac Heads was created in 2010 as public sculptures. Ai Weiwei first exhibited them around the Pulitzer Fountain in New York’s Central Park and since then one of the series is touring around the world. The other one was generously lent by the artist to the National Gallery in Prague as the first of Ai’s works to be presented in the Czech Republic. A monumental site-specific installation for the Big Hall of the Trade Fair Palace will follow next year.
When working on the Zodiac Heads, the artist was, according to his own words, trying to produce a witty and natural installation, that would enliven the serious and grey reality of an American city with its playfulness and straightforwardness. At the same time, however, the work has deep historical context. The heads are exact copies of the statues that had once been placed around a fountain in the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. This place was designed by Jesuit missionaries commissioned by the Emperors of the last Qing dynasty (1644-1911) of the imperial China. The park and its architecture were, however, destroyed in 1860 in the looting that ensued after the Second Opium War. Many of the heads were smuggled away from China, ending up in a number of art collections around the world.
In the recent decades, they keep appearing on the market and attempts are made to bring them back to China either as donations or as purchases by patriotic sponsors. With copying exactly this work and exhibiting it in American public space, Ai Weiwei opens up the complex problem of searching for one’s own history and identity in a multicultural world, be it a few hundred years ago or today.
Zodiac Heads are introduced and commented by Michaela Pejčochová, curator of the Chinese collection at the National Gallery in Prague.