It’s now the second month since renowned artist Ai WeiWei was detained by Chinese authorities at the Beijing Airport, where he was to board a plane to Hong Kong. In the absence of any satisfactory information about the charges under which he is being held or his condition, his artwork is being unveiled in the West on schedule and Hong Kong artists have started a graffiti campaign asking “Who’s Afraid of Ai WeiWei?” As the New York Times reports, an exhibition of new work opened at the Neugerriemschneider Gallery in Berlin last weekend (with a giant banner asking “Where is Ai WeiWei” at the front of the building). On Wednesday in New York, “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” opened at the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel.
The latter work is said to be Ai’s first public sculpture. The piece is comprised of a series of 12 heads of the creatures of the Chinese Zodiac, after which years are also named: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, boar. The heads are cast in bronze, are roughly four feet high, and set on a six-foot bronze base part of which looks like an abstracted lotus plant and stems.
“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” might seem “whimsical,” says the New York Times. But then one learns the backstory:
The heads are enlarged versions of those that were designed in the 18th century by European Jesuits for the Manchu emperor Qianlong as part of a famous fountain clock in the European-style gardens of the Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, near Beijing. (Each of the originals spouted water for two hours a day, which may explain why the mouths of Mr. Ai’s copies are open, as if they are noisily expressing themselves.)
The heads were looted when this vast complex of buildings and gardens was ransacked and burned by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860, an event that remains a signal symbol of national humiliation. They began to resurface in 2000, and at this point the Chinese government has retrieved five of them (ox, tiger, horse, monkey and boar).
Another two (rat and rabbit) were part of the Paris sale of the collection of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berg, in 2009. The Chinese government sued unsuccessfully for their return; they were successfully bid on by a Chinese collector who then refused to pay for them as an act of patriotic protest, and they are now back in Mr. Berg’s hands. The remaining five may be lost forever.
Ai himself “sidestepped the importance of this knowledge, saying that it was not crucial for the public’s enjoyment of the work,” saying that a viewer should simply “see the connection” through his or her own experience.
The tangled history of the original animals, at times captured and missing and intertwined as it is with colonialism, cultural imperialism, and national identity, gives “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” a certain gravity and even a whiff of the ominous. With work’s creator himself imprisoned and unheard from, a viewer cannot but help fear that his fate might come to echo that of the original animal heads.
In Hong Kong, artists and activists have challenged Ai’s arrest through artwork of a different sort. NPR reports that 22-year-old graffiti artist Tang Chin, also known as Tangerine, has begun a campaign to warn people in Hong Kong that what happened to Ai WeiWei does affect them. Tangerine has spray-painted an image of Ai’s bearded face with the message “Who’s Afraid of Ai WeiWei?” beneath it all over Hong Kong:
“He’s one of the most prominent contemporary artists in the world right now,” she explains. “And if he can be arrested, then there’s no identity we can hide behind: Being a Hong Kong citizen doesn’t help anymore; being rich or social status doesn’t help. There’s no shield any more against this very naked power that’s trying to engulf us.”
Tangerine’s graffiti campaign has turned her into an inadvertent counterculture icon. Few people know what she looks like. She’s not exactly on the run, but a police unit is investigating criminal damage charges against her, which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.
Such a stiff sentence for graffiti is extremely unusual, especially since a lesser offense of “graffiti” exists, which carries a maximum penalty of a fine and three months’ imprisonment. Stranger still, the investigating unit is a serious crime squad that usually deals with murder and rape, not vandalism.
Tangerine’s unusual treatment unleashed a furor among Hong Kong’s outspoken press. But she is unfazed, retorting, “I have to thank the police for drawing so much attention to this issue. Even if I have to go to jail, I think that would be a very, very worth it price to pay.”
Others have spoken in support of Tangerine’s campaign. About 2,000 marched through Hong Kong’s streets for Ai Weiwei on April 23. Teams of people are downloading Tangerine’s graphic and also spray-painting it around Hong Kong. As NPR notes,
“… the simple question the graffiti poses is, “Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei?” the heavy-handed reactions of Hong Kong authorities do offer one answer: It seems many in Hong Kong’s corridors of power fear the potency of his image.
Indeed, it also seems that many in the Chinese government’s corridors of power fear the potency Ai WeiWei’s message.
“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” will be on view in New York until July 15 and will then travel to Los Angeles, Houston, Pittsburgh and Washington; another edition goes on view next week at Somerset House in London. But will we know of Ai WeiWei’s whereabouts by then? Or will it be the case that his work will travel farther than its creator ever will again?
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Photo with "Free Ai WeiWei" graffiti by 美国之音黎堡 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons