Ai Weiwei’s Gilded Zodiac Heads Venture out West
Since its founding, Heather James Fine Art has taken an unselfish path with many of its larger exhibitions, making a point to loan out artworks in the name of public good—a lofty mission, particularly as the art world struggles with issues of exclusivity. Now, the gallery is furthering that mission with its most ambitious traveling show yet, featuring a series of Ai Weiwei’s sculptures on view at a number of museums in the western United States.
As is often the case with Weiwei’s work, his “Zodiac Heads: Gold” series tackles issues of colonialism, access, competing historical narratives, and the meeting of Chinese and Western cultures. Thus, the pairing of the California gallery and the activist sculptor—by now an institution in his own right—feels particularly appropriate.
The “Zodiac Heads: Gold” series is based on once-inaccessible (to the general public, at least) gold sculptures from Yuanming Yuan, a tony getaway filled with mansions and European-style gardens near Beijing. Designed by two European Jesuits during the 18th and 19th centuries, the original sculptures were part of an elaborate fountain clock. They were looted, however, during the Second Opium War, when the area was destroyed by Anglo-French troops in 1860. Seven of the 12 Zodiac heads are known to have survived; of those, only five have been repatriated to China.
Weiwei, who was born in China and now lives in Germany, remade the sculptural heads in several iterations, including 10-foot-tall bronze versions that have toured the world. The gold-gilded versions, now at the Tucson Art Museum, measure between 20 and 30 inches in height. Regardless of size, his sculptural interpretations fold the act of appropriation upon itself as they cross borders and toy with the notion of cultural ownership.