“They're just like a toilet seat, or anything else,” says artist Ai Weiwei about the zodiac heads from the fountain of the Yuanming Yuan. It's an idealistic sentiment: the original heads, taken from the palace outside of Beijing in 1860 during the Second Opium War, have become powerful nationalistic symbols for many Chinese. In his 2010 sculptural work Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads, Ai recreates the twelve animal heads in two sets—one in monumental bronze for public display, another set in gold for museums. It's a complicated artistic act that carries with it a whole reservoir of cultural, political, aesthetic and personal associations, most of which are likely unfamiliar to many Westerners. The essays and interviews collected in the new book Circle of Animals edited by Susan Delson offer interesting insights into the rich and complicated symbolism of the heads and of Ai's work.
The years spanning from about 1840 to 1945, now known in China as “the century of national humiliation,” saw the nation suffering a long series of defeats and domination. One of the era's most powerful symbols is the Yuanming Yuan palace, now a ruin outside of Beijing, having been looted by British troops in 1860. Twelve bronze heads depicting the animals of the Chinese zodiac which decorated a fountain there have assumed nationalistic significance for many Chinese, in spite of the works' odd provenance (The heads were designed and made by an Italian Jesuit in the 18th century for the European-style gardens of an emperor fascinated by the West, and they are the type of object that would have most likely been reviled and destroyed during the Cultural Revolution). Nonetheless, the heads have come to symbolize both the cultural achievements of China's past and the humiliations which followed; the recovery and repatriation of the heads are seen as symbolic of China's recovery and renewed status as a formidable global power.
A dialogue with history is an essential component of Ai's work, and it's difficult to imagine having a complicated and informed perspective on this piece without the sort of background that the essays in Circle of Animals provide. The book is divided into three parts: the first is about the creation of Ai's Circle of Animals and the sculptures' place in the artist's body of work. The second (and perhaps most informative) is about the historical topics of the Chinese zodiac, the creation of the Yuanming Yuan, and the looting of the zodiac bronzes and the issues surrounding their possible repatriation. The final section deals briefly with recent (often turbulent) political events related to the appearance of the heads at auction.
The essays are far livelier and more engaging than one often encounters in such works of art criticism, perhaps a testament not just to the energy and informed intellect of the writers but to the specificity, humor, and richness of Ai's work. The accompanying photographs are precise and detailed (though one wishes for more photos of the remaining original works, perhaps all in one place as with the copies). The prints accompanying the middle section's historical accounts are lovely, as well: it's a handsome volume. One finishes it feeling not only more informed about the fascinating subject at hand but far more engaged with the work's complexities. That may be all that needs to be said in any book's favor.