Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads (2010) comes to Yorkshire Sculpture Park as part of the organisation’s 40th anniversary celebrations. The piece, which comprises a dramatic group of 12 bronze animal heads, has been on a worldwide tour since May 2011 and made a colossal migration through Europe, Asia and the Americas. On display this Spring in the Lower Park, YSP invites visitors to experience first-hand the most-viewed sculptural project (in person and online) in the history of contemporary art. It forms part of a series of projects developed by YSP that investigates migration and human freedom, including Shirin Neshat (2011), Yinka Shonibare (2013), Amar Kanwar (2013) and Beyond Boundaries: Art by Email (2017).
Ai’s 12 bronze heads are based on the traditional Chinese zodiac that once adorned the famed fountain-clock of the imperial summer palace Yuanming Yuan. Ransacked in 1860 during the Second Opium War by the British and French, only seven of the original heads have been returned to China – the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, monkey, and boar. The locations of the other five – dragon, snake, goat, rooster, and dog – are still unknown. Central to Ai’s reimagined zodiac is the metamorphosis provoked by expulsion, migration, and deliberate change of location undergone by people and objects alike.
Zodiac Heads has travelled vast distances and been welcomed in global locations: the physical migration of the work responds directly to its central concerns that not everyone is at liberty to travel. In 2011, Ai was released from captivity by Chinese authorities, whereby his passport was confiscated. For the duration of its exhibition in Chicago in 2014, Zodiac Heads was hooded, an eerie reminder that the artist was confined to China. In 2016, he was granted travel and flew to Prague to see the piece in-situ for the first time. Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads joins Ai’s Iron Tree (2013) which is sited in the historic Chapel courtyard.
Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton.
1. Ai Weiwei, Dragon (detail), Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, 2010. Belvedere. Courtesy the artist and YSP.