Ai Weiwei present in spirit

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s strange animal heads had to stand in for the man himself at London’s Somerset House. Corinna Lotz reports.

Ai WeiweiAi Weiwei was planning to introduce his Circle of Animals to the public, but since his arrest by the Chinese authorities on April 3, his whereabouts remain unknown.

Since he was detained on trumped up charges to which he “confessed”, momentum is building up internationally to demand the artist’s release. The Beijing regime has refused to answer questions about his fate.

His 12 giant animal heads which symbolise ancient Chinese Zodiac signs, are cast in bronze. They tower on slender poles arranged in an arc around the fountains in the Renaissance courtyard off the Strand, are an eerie presence conveying mixed messages about China’s ancient, colonial and contemporary histories.

Their symbolism is complex and contradictory – they are aggressive and yet appear like impaled heads. The originals which inspired them were designed by European Jesuit monks on the orders of the Manchu Emperor Qianlong as a fountain clock, in which each head would spout water.

Ai WeiweiAt the unveiling, Somerset House trust director Gwyn Miles was joined by Ekow Eshun, former director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, in calling for the artist’s release. Miles expressed concern about the wellbeing of the artist and his friends and colleagues, demanding that they should not “not to be detained without a fair trial”.  

Although Ai was often a provocative artist, the decision to silence him indicated a sense of insecurity on the part of the Beijing authorities, she said. "It seems to me that a strong government could take provocation."

The artist’s plight has aroused a massive global campaign with 90,000 signing a petition organised by the Guggenheim Foundation and the International Council of Museums.

The Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads are his first public outdoor art work in London, which has also hosted Ai Weiwei’s hundred million sunflower seed installation in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall.

12 May 2011

The Circle of Animals/Zodiac heads can be viewed free of charge until 26 June, after which it goes on tour throughout the United States. The Lisson Gallery, Bell Street, W1, is presenting key sculptural and video works until 16 July.

A series of talks at Somerset House, curated by Ekow Eshun, accompanies the sculpture installation. It runs from 13 May to 6 June. Themes range from Ai Weiwei’s art, Chinese politics, social media and political action.

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