Step out of the elevator from the LACMA parking garage these days and you'll be confronted by the giant bronze heads of a pig, a rat and an ox, atop stems that look like water cascading into a rounded base. Then you'll notice you're encircled by nine more such creatures, sentries guarding L.A.'s citadel of culture.
Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is the first major public sculpture by Ai Weiwei, probably the best known Chinese artist today, in part because he's been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government. The work debuted last year at the Sao Paulo Biennial, then traveled to the Pulitzer Fountain across from the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Meanwhile, Ai had been arrested in April by the Chinese government — his studio was raided and he was held for 81 days without charge.
There's something intimidating about these figures, which tower 10 feet high and seem to be snarling. But parents with children are drawn to them. They point to the comic appearance of some (the monkey, the pig) and the ferocity of others (the tiger, the dragon). They look around for their favorite animal and take photographs.
I also watched several grown Chinese men climbing on the grass behind the elevators to have their photos taken with the auspicious dragon. It was a bit of Disneyland, like having your picture taken with Mickey Mouse, even though you know he's just a person dressed up in costume. "I saw a kid hugging the base of the sculpture, very warmly and easily," says Franklin Sirmans, LACMA's head of contemporary art.
At the same time, there are layers of meaning beneath that surface entertainment. These are the 12 animals from the Chinese zodiac, in which each animal takes a turn "overseeing" a year. Individuals born in a certain year are said to share certain of the animal's traits.
Ai's sculptures are modeled after the set that once graced a garden in the Summer Palace of the Chinese emperors. The great 18th-century Qianlong Emperor commissioned them as part of a series of European-style buildings and landscaping, designed by Italian and French Jesuits. The sculptures had heads of animals but the torsos of Chinese gentlemen in robes. They sat on either side of a fountain, spouting water from their mouths at certain hours of the day.
In the 19th century, European powers were greedy for a piece of the tea, silk and ceramics action in China. They argued with the Chinese over trade, and when some Western envoys were captured and tortured, French and English soldiers sacked and looted the Summer Palace, taking away the prized zodiac heads. The Chinese remember the attack to this day, citing it as a prime example of the West's perfidy and imperialistic tendencies.
In referencing this history, Zodiac Heads is a symbol of both Chinese pride and tradition and of the West's sometimes destructive influence — and that influence is accelerating today. But the artist is too savvy to have a work seen on one level. The sculptures also can be interpreted as part of Ai's continual questioning of Chinese culture and its relationship between the fake and the real, the valued and the undervalued. In one series, he took ancient terra-cotta pots and painted them garish colors. In a performance piece, he dropped a Han dynasty pot and let it smash to the ground.
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Ai also has been a vocal dissident. In 2009 he criticized the government for not doing enough after the disastrous Sichuan earthquake — and was beaten up by the police. A year later he was placed under house arrest.
After his April arrest, he was released on June 22 and accused of tax evasion, but everyone knows the real reason he was locked up. His art tweaks the nose of Chinese authority, and his exercise of freedom of expression is too public.
Still, Ai plays down the seriousness of Zodiac Heads. "I want this to be seen as an object that doesn't have a monumental quality," he has said, "but rather is a funny piece — a piece people can relate to or interpret on many different levels, because everybody has a zodiac connection."
Sirmans describes Ai as a "trickster." "He's politically engaged, always questioning things, trying to bring things to light," yet "he has to be playful to talk about some things that are really, really heavy."