Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads enter courtyard at London's Somerset House

By Laura Burgess | 12 May 2011
The statues in the courtyard
Two people stand in the courtyard amongst the giant animal head sculptures © 2011 Marcus Ginns
Exhibition: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Ai Weiwei, Somerset House, London, May 12 – June 26 2011

At the start of 2011 hype surrounded the zodiac chart Ophiuchus, suggesting the original Babylonian chart was incorrect.

The Babylonian based its signs on the constellation the sun was in on the day a person was born. More than 1,000 years later the moon’s gravitational pull has made the Earth shift on its axis, altering the alignment.

Irrespective of the stargazing debate, the revelations certainly haven’t perturbed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose contemporary sculpture, Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, has become the first ever contemporary art sculpture to go on display in the historic courtyard of Somerset House.

The outdoor installation features 12 bronze animal heads in a recreation of the traditional Chinese zodiac sculptures once found on the fountain-clock of Yuanming Yuan - an 18th Century royal retreat near Beijing.

The heads are installed in an arc around the House’s Edmond J Safra Fountain Court in a close reformation of their original positioning.

A couple of European Jesuits designed the figures for Manchu Emperor Qianlong and the clock tower, and each original animal spouted water at two-hour intervals.

In 1860 French and British troops ransacked the Yuanming Yuan and the heads were pillaged. Only seven of them - the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, monkey and boar - have been located. The whereabouts of the other five remain unknown.

Ai Weiwei reinterpreted these objects on an oversized scale, focusing his attention on questions of looting and repatriation while extending his ongoing exploration of fakes and copies.

Each head weighs approximately 800 pounds and measures about four feet high by three feet wide. Added to their bronze bases, they scale ten feet.

“My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity and value and how value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings,” says Weiwei.

“However, because Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads is composed of animal heads, it’s a work that everyone can understand, including children and people who are not in the art world.

"I think it’s more important to show your work to the public. That’s what I really care about."

The show at Somerset House is part of an international outdoor public sculpture touring exhibition. Weiwei will also present a show of his key sculptural and video works at the Lisson Gallery from May 13 – July 16 2011.

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