The Chinese New Year celebration will usher in the Year of the Monkey on Monday, Feb. 8. Intelligent, inquisitive, competitive and fun-loving, the monkey is one of the most prized signs of the Chinese zodiac.
A 10-foot-tall bronze evocation of the monkey by internationally famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is up in the Crocker Art Museum’s outdoor courtyard, along with the other 11 Chinese zodiac animals. Arranged in a semicircle, they tower over viewers, both children and adults, transfixed by the 1,600-pound heads rising up on columns that resemble spouts of water.
Their creator, who can be thought of as the Andy Warhol of China, is the most successful artist in China, known for his appropriation of traditional Chinese objects, his witty critiques of contemporary culture and his social activism, which has led to repeated arrests by the Chinese government.
He was being detained by the government in 2011 at the time of the New York debut of “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” his first public artwork. Born in 1957, Ai is the son of Ai Qing, one of China’s most revered modern poets, who was jailed and tortured by the Kuomintang in the 1930s and was sent by Mao into internal exile with his family in the late 1950s when Ai Weiwei was an infant. During the Cultural Revolution in 1966, they were further banished to a camp on the Gobi Desert, living in a damp, seeping room dug from earth where Ai Qing was forbidden to read or write and had to clean latrines every day.
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The family was allowed to return to Beijing in 1975 when Ai Weiwei was 19. By 1978, he had joined one of the first avant-garde art groups in China and in 1981 moved to New York for 12 years where he absorbed the aesthetic approaches of Warhol, Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns.
Like Duchamp, he describes most of his work as “readymades,” even the zodiac heads, which, while made by a team of artists and craftsmen under Ai’s direction, are based, with subtle variations, on sculptures that once adorned the famous 18th-century fountain clock of the Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat outside Beijing built by Qing Dynasty emperors.
Most of the 800-acre Yuanming Yuan was filled with Chinese-style gardens and traditional architecture made of wood, but it was most famous for a series of grand European-style fountains, gardens and stone palaces, built in the mid-1700s by the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled from 1736 to 1795. One of the showpieces of the European section was the water-clock fountain, a blend of Chinese and Western aesthetics, featuring 12 bronze animal heads designed by the Italian Jesuit artist Giuseppi Castiglione (1688-1766) who served at the emperor’s court.
In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French troops looted the original zodiac heads while destroying Yuanming Yuan, which lies in ruins today. Seven of the heads – the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, monkey and pig – have been recovered to date, but the other five – dragon, snake, ram, rooster and dog – remain lost. The repatriation of the original bronzes, some of which have been sold at auction for millions of dollars, is a cause célèbre in China. Ai’s heads, much larger in scale than the originals, are subtle variations on Castiglione’s sculptures, though the rabbit and horse (which reminds me of “My Little Pony”) are very close to the originals.
Because these sculptures are animal heads, Ai has said, everyone can have some understanding of them, including children and people who are not part of the art world. Comparing them to Warhol’s painting of Mao, who was someone whose image people were familiar with, Ai opined, “they might see these zodiac animals like that – like Mickey Mouse.” Certainly in China, people are as familiar with the animals of the zodiac as we are with movie stars and Disney characters. For us, though, from the flamboyant dragon to the fierce tiger (which actually looks more like a bear), they are definitely exotic.
Ai’s attitude toward them, as expressed in the exhibition catalog, is ambivalent and ironic. Disputing the status of the originals as “national treasures,” he points out that they were designed by an Italian and made by a Frenchman for a Qing dynasty emperor who was descended from Manchurian invaders of China.
“So,” he asks, ”if we talk about a national treasure, what nation are we talking about?”
This is one of several questions raised by Ai’s “Circle of Animals”
▪ What is real and what is fake?
▪ Are the original heads more valuable in and of themselves or as symbols of a new nationalism?
▪ Are looted art treasures better off being repatriated to native countries, which may be in political flux or kept in safety by their foreign owners? As Ai points out, during the Cultural Revolution, these objects might very well have been seized and melted down.
A supplemental exhibition of photographs, text panels, a video about the making of the animal heads, and objects from the Crocker collection, installed on the museum’s second floor amplifies the courtyard display of the monumental bronze animal heads. The tandem exhibits encourage us to contemplate Ai’s ongoing exploration of Chinese art and identity and his role as artist/agitator, which I believe gives his work greater depth than Warhol’s, whose effect is to ironically mock American culture. In contrast, Ai critiques Chinese culture with the aim of improving it.
As an example of his ongoing political commitment to the downtrodden, on Jan. 27 Ai closed his exhibition “Ruptures” in Copenhagen, Denmark, after Danish lawmakers passed a controversial bill allowing authorities to seize valuables from asylum seekers. “Ruptures” included some of his most important works, among them “Sunflower Seeds,” an installation of 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds, ancient Chinese ceramics covered with paint and sculptures made of wood from Buddhist temples torn down during the Cultural Revolution.
Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St.. Sacramento
When: Through Sunday, May 1, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday
Cost: $10-$5. Free for members and children 6 and under. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”
Information: 916-808-7000, www.crockerart