14 May 2011

Ai Weiwei - Zodiac Heads in London

It has been weeks since Ai Weiwei, China’s most important modern artist, was detained while he boarded a plane for Hong Kong.  Since then the artist and outspoken activist has, or so it appears, disappeared off the face of the planet.  While there are several campaigns demanding his release, one way to remember his plight is by continuing with his planned exhibitions.

So, Somerset House in London’s West End has opened an exhibition which Ai had planned for a long time.  The animal heads here represent the signs of the Chinese Zodiac.  The inspiration (aka the Circle of Animals)is a similar set which adorned an imperial resort in China but which was ransacked by European troops in 1860.

Since then various Chinese governments have worked to have the originals returned, most recently in 2008.  Yves Saint Laurent owned two of the originals and after his death the Chinese government demanded the return of the rat and the rabbit which had come in to his possession.

The artist has frequently taken risks in his work. Often he uses it to visually describe the authoritarian nature of his country’s government as well as the widespread dishonesty which typically goes hand in hand with one party politics.  However, this work looks directly at the history of China without any contemporary political conflict represented through these remarkable bronze heads.

The exhibition represents a double first. It is the first time that contemporary art has been put on display in the courtyard of Somerset House, a major arts and cultural center in the heart of London.  Additionally it is the first time that Ai Weiwei has exhibited public sculpture outdoors in the English capital.

Ai Weiwei certainly meant to raise an issue here – which is how culture should be sold abroad and how authentic those representations which are disseminated worldwide truly are.  Yet this is not without irony.  While highlighting the issue of the kidnap of the original sculptures Weiwei has presciently presented the world with more questions.  Why has the artist himself been kidnapped, where is he and is he safe? Most pressingly perhaps – when will he be released?

Kuriositas would like to thanks Flickr User hedgiecc for their very kind permission to share with you their marvellous photographs of the exhibition. Please visit his Flickr Photostream and his websie, Clapham Omnibus.

If you would like to sign the petition calling for the release of Ai Weiwei, please click here.