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A Present Absence: Ai Weiwei in London

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May 19, 2011   ·   3 Comments

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads, 2011, London Installation. Photo: Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.

It was rather ominous to see, a few weeks ago, a group of twelve wrapped sculptures populate the courtyard of Somerset House (a neoclassical building in Central London that once housed The Royal Academy and now is home to The Courtauld Institute and various art events). Ominous because their creator, Ai Weiwei, had himself been under wraps, imprisoned by the Chinese police and not heard from since the beginning of April (recently, he has been allowed a a visit from his wife). Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is both the first contemporary art installation in the historic courtyard and the first outdoor public installation by the Chinese artist. The installation (and current events) highlights the artist’s challenging relationship with his native culture.

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads, 2011, London Installation. Photo: Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads, 2011, London Installation. Photo: Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.

The twelve bronze heads representing the animals of the Chinese Zodiac sit on stands looking like knotty twisted roots running into the ground. The sculptures are a re-creation of those that were once part of the fountain-clock of the imperial palace (called Yuanming Yuan. The palace, today, is in ruins, sacked by Europeans in the 1860s. Some of the original heads have gone up for auction, others have been lost. Weiwei engages with the ideas of cultural heritage and its value, both in its lack of preservation in China as well as its migration around the world and its loss of meaning.

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads, 2011, London Installation. Photo: Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.

The Somerset House installation is the latest in a world tour (also on display in New York at the Grand Army Plaza until July 15) and marks the 3-prong presence of the artist in London this past year, including a small feature of recent work (including the vases below) currently at Lisson Gallery and the recently concluded installation at Tate Modern.

Ai Weiwei, Coloured Vases (detail), 2010, 31 Han Dynasty vases and industrial paint. Photo: Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.

Lisson has chosen to vociferously support Weiwei, draping a large banner over one of their buildings with the artist’s likeness and the address of the website FreeAiWeiwei.org.  They also plastered a street corner with posters inscribed with quotes from Weiwei about liberty and creativity (which they give out for free); created a montage of recent news articles about his imprisonment; and set up a computer  in the gallery following all recent tweets about the artist.

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/ Zodiac Heads, 2011, London Installation. Photo: Stefan Zebrowski-Rubin.

But it’s the public art installation at Somerset House that resonates most with Weiwei’s absence.  The fountain installation resurrects a lost Chinese monument and confronts its European origins (the original heads were made by Jesuit priests). The re-creation of the fountain harkens to the delicacy of the lives of artifacts over time, and to the fragility of human existence no matter the regime. And it seems rather fitting that it is the animals of the zodiac represented in the installation, imparting a certain element of symbolism and fate which denote a greater presence beyond us all in this universe.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads will be at Somerset House until June 26. Lisson Gallery’s Weiwei show runs until July 16.

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3 Responses to “A Present Absence: Ai Weiwei in London”

  1. tres says:

    Hello
    I am concerned with AI WEIWEI and the defense of human rights and freedom of speech in China and the world. In order help I thought I would make a song. It´s called FREE WEIWEI. Please listen to it and watch the video. It has the message of Ai Weiwei through his voice. Enjoy. It´s a powerful song, almost an anthem. Please, spread it if you think it can do any good.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQDz-7EcNJU

    Thank you very much
    3

    Follow song events at https://twitter.com/tressilencio
    PLAY IT LOUD.
    Please spread!
    NO MORE SILENCE
    June 4, anniversary Tiananmen sq Massacre.
    “Nobody can stop the course of change. It’s impossible to stop freedom, you know, it´s just like the wind.” Ai Weiwei

  2. Art has a life of it’s own, its own momentum.
    The artist is absent but the art speaks.
    The message is loud!
    Once again Weiwei creates something beautiful,
    Memorable and though-provoking!

  3. Really good site, keep on posting !

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