Get ready for a new public installation. A monumental sculpture featuring the animal heads of the traditional Chinese zodiac will be unveiled on September 17 outside the Adler Planetarium. “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Bronze” is by Ai Weiwei, a leading figure in the contemporary art world and China’s most outspoken political artist.
China considers Weiwei such a threat to its national security that they revoked his passport several years ago, and he is not allowed to leave the country. Luckily, the international art community has been welcoming of the artist who co-designed the 2008 National Olympic Stadium (“Bird’s Nest”) in Beijing, granting him major exhibitions (such as his 100-million handmade sculptures at the Tate Modern) and the touring of the zodiac heads. They have appeared in São Paulo, Los Angeles, Taipei and other locations before stopping in Chicago, where they’ll be on display through April 15.
The Adler Planetarium is a perfect site for Weiwei’s astrological artwork, given the institution’s mission to educate us about the cosmos. (This is the Year of the Horse.) Yet Weiwei’s artwork may have more to do with the looting of Chinese artifacts and the country’s political history than with horoscopes. That’s because these bronze animal heads are based on 18th century sculptures from the royal Qing dynasty that were looted by French and British troops. Weiwei has been vocal about the unethical pillage and auction of China’s cultural heritage in the global art economy. He said in a recent video, “They never really care about culture. This is the nature of the communists—to destroy the old world and to rebuild a new one.”
Weiwei has come under attack for being an artist who freely expresses his opinions—as artists ought to. In 2009 he had to undergo surgery due to a beating he received from Chinese police. This was in response to his art project that publicized the names of 500 children who had died in a school after an earthquake, a fact that the government was trying to suppress. In a recent interview with the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, Weiwei claimed that his phone and internet are tapped. Still, he is unafraid to speak candidly about China’s contemporary rulers, calling them “dangerous.”
“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Bronze” arrives in Chicago just in time for Expo Chicago, and was coordinated with the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.