Thursday, May 12, 2011

Ai Weiwei - Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads

Ai Weiwei's magnificent ceramic sunflower seed installation at Tate Modern has just ended, and today his first monumental bronze outdoor installation, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads opens to the public in the courtyard of Somerset House, having just been to New York and Sao Paolo.

"Designed in the 18th century by two European Jesuits serving in the court of the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong, the twelve zodiac animal heads originally functioned as a water clock-fountain, which was sited in the magnificent European-style gardens of the Yuanming Yuan. In 1860, the Yuanming Yuan was ransacked by French and British troops, and the heads were pillaged. In re-interpreting these objects on an oversized scale, Ai Weiwei focuses attention on questions of looting and repatriation, while extending his ongoing exploration of the “fake” and the copy in relation to the original."

The installation is a real triumph - very imposing physically, and richly layered conceptually - a wonderful icon of the way cultural exchanges happen through the centuries. It can only add to this most prominent contemporary Chinese artist's global reputation.

So it is absolutely extraordinary that at this exact moment the Chinese authorities have chosen to 'disappear' the artist - he hasn't been seen or heard of since the 3rd of April when he was arrested while boarding a flight to Hong Kong.

Gwyn Miles, Director of Somerset House Trust, has issued this statement:
"Like everyone who admires and respects the work of Ai Weiwei we are dismayed and aggrieved by the news that he has been detained by Chinese authorities. We deplore the actions taken against Ai Weiwei and his friends and colleagues, and indeed any curtailment of individual’s human rights. We are very concerned about their safety and wellbeing and ask for information on their whereabouts to be released and them not to be detained without a fair trial."

"Ai Weiwei has chosen and approved the installation set up for Circle of Animals at Somerset House and the works have already been shipped to the UK. The sculptures will be installed as planned and Circle of Animals will open to the public on 12 May. We believe that more than ever, his work should be seen and appreciated by as many people as possible."

Anish Kapoor, one of our leading sculptors, has issued a call to action by artists and the world's cultural organizations:

"As a colleague – I don't know him personally – I feel that as artists we have a communal voice and it's important that we stick together, that we have a sense of solidarity with each other," he said.

"It would be nice to see the art world come together a little more. Perhaps all museums and galleries should be closed for a day across the world. I think some such campaign needs to form itself."

Kapoor said the Chinese state's behaviour was reminiscent of the Soviet era, when "the voice of artists of different kinds was seen as being dangerous".

He added: "It does bear witness to the barbarity of governments that if they're that paranoid they have to put away artists. It's a ridiculous situation."

The situation is very distressing. China should view this artist as a tremendous asset to its image and growing cultural reach in the world.

I do recommend popping along to the exhibition at Somerset House. I particularly enjoyed they way they have chosen to exhibit the scultures next to fountains, as an echo of how the originals were designed to be viewed.

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