Ai Weiwei’s who is still under arrest in China, was absent from the dedication of his sculpture installation in New York yesterday. The public art project “Circle of Animals: Zodiac Heads” was unveiled by New York’s Mayor Bloomberg. The installation is located in the Pulitzer Fountain and depicts the bronze heads of animals which correspond to signs of the Zodiac, representing the different phases of the Chinese calendar. The fountain installation is based on an original that graced the Summer Palace, one of Imperial China’s gems, that was looted by the British during the Opium Wars in the 1850’s. Weiwei was arrested on April 3 and detained by the Chinese authorities.
The sculpture references the way culture is used in protest by uniting nationalist sentiment and the turbulent relationships of power, money, and politics that lurk beneath seemingly simple spectacles. The fountain also references a high profile case of non-payment at auction. In February 2009, a pair of 18th- century bronze animal heads from one of the Imperial Summer Palace’s fountains fetched 31.5 million euros at Christie’s International’s sale of the collection of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. This was later uncollected and the lot later turned into a protest statement when the buyer insisted that the works should be returned to China as they were looted in the 19th century.
Mayor Bloomberg in his speech, called for Ai Weiwei’s release, stating that “the very fact that we do not know where he is or when he will be released is very disturbing,” while vowing, “I will continue to speak out against attacks on freedom of speech wherever they occur.” It was, as far as political speeches go, a good one, full of history and high-flown language. Then again, such rhetoric is almost mandated by the media and diplomatic furor kicked up by Ai’s disappearance.
The speech was followed by a 12 representatives of New York’s cultural community representing one for each of the zodiac heads reading Ai’ Weiwei’s writings from a recently published book of his blog posts.