On Tuesday afternoon, enormous wooden crates line the pathway to the Speed Art Museum. Nearby, a crane operator takes a lunch break before she begins a second round of public art installation.
Miranda Lash, the museum’s contemporary curator, leads me across a series of concrete slabs that look like large stone lily pads. They are arranged in a semicircle facing Third Street. These are the targets on which the crane will gently drop Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s sculptures.
“They are all made of bronze, all in excess of a thousand pounds,” Lash says. “Given the weight, we use the crane to lift them out of their crates and onto the concrete pads.”
Right now, only a few sculptures from Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” — a series of a dozen 10-foot-tall sculptures, each representing an animal from the Chinese Zodiac — are standing. Currently, there’s a cheerful-looking monkey, a panting dog, and a rooster with a gigantic, metallic wattle.
By the end of the week, all the animals from the Chinese Zodiac will be represented: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar.
And while the installation can be enjoyed simply for what it is — a bunch of cute animal masks — Lash says it also references an elaborate fountain clock created in the 1700’s for the gardens of Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat outside of Beijing, China. It was commissioned by the Qianlong emperor who hired Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit artist, to create it.
This fountain, according to Lash, was created “with a sense of Western opulence.” Each of the zodiac animals corresponded to a two-hour period on a 24-hour cycle. In its original design, each animal sprayed water from its mouth during its appointed two-hour period.
The original sculpture was eventually dismantled; the masks were scattered and sold across the world.
In the late 1980’s, five of these heads were auctioned at Sotheby’s and have since been repatriated to China. Two heads appeared in a controversial 2009 auction at Christie’s. The whereabouts of the remaining five heads – the dragon, ram snake, rooster and dog – remains unknown.
Lash says conceptually, Ai Weiwei’s work evokes this complicated history of cultural exchange, war, looting, and commerce.
“Ai Weiwei is arguably China’s most well-known artist,” Lash says. “He regards himself as a conceptual artist in that his work often deals with ideas and history.”
His work is often confrontational, too. In 1995, Ai Weiwei released three gelatin silver prints which showed him step-by-step destroying a 2,000-year-old Han dynasty urn outside his mother’s home in Beijing. While antique dealers decried his act as childish vandalism, he argued that it was to show that history is malleable.
“He is perhaps best known for being a dissident in China, resisting the Chinese government” Lash says. “Until recently he was under house arrest. He’s been released now, but many of his works touch on the Chinese government and their approach to nationalism and actually that does play into his piece.”
But Lash says the artist would also be fine with his work simply being enjoyed by passersby.
“Actually, he said he wanted the piece to be fun and interesting,” she says.
On that note, fun fact: if you stand on the sidewalk parallel to Third Street, it looks like all the masks are making eye contact directly with you.
“Circle of Animals” will be on view until November 2017. More information is available here.