Circular Time

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

From the “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads” exhibition by Ai Weiwei, in the Edmond J. Safra Fountain courtyard of Somerset House, London, 12th May to 26th June 2011.

“Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads … re-creations of the traditional Chinese zodiac sculptures which once adorned the fountain-clock of Yuanmingyuan … Designed in the 18th Century by two European Jesuits at the behest of the Manchu emperor Qianlong, the fountain-clock featured the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, each spouting water at two-hour intervals. In 1860, the Yuanmingyuan was ransacked by French and British troops and the heads were pillaged. Today, seven heads – the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, monkey and bear [!] – have been located, the whereabouts of the other five are unknown.” (Exhibition description).

Two original statues from the Yuanmingyuan’s fountain

Just as the two Jesuits reworked European motifs into the Chinese culture of Emperor Qianlong, Ai Weiwei creates anew rather than reproduces, reworking in time and place the heads pillaged in the Yuanmingyuan. He „focuses attention on questions of looting and repatriation while extending his ongoing exploration of the ʻfake’ and the copy in relation to the original.”

“Our whole condition was very sad, but we still feel warmth, and the life in our bodies can still tell us that there is excitement in there, even though death is waiting. We had better not enjoy the moment, but create the moment.”
(Ai Weiwei, Exhibition description).

Another photo set of the same statues, exhibited in New York’s Grand Army Plaza

For comparison, a different yet complementary reworking of the twelve zodiac animals may be found in the work of Shanghai-born Li Huayi:

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