Of all of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s politically-motivated art works, Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads has perhaps the most fascinating (and mysterious) backstory. This installation of 12 bronze animal heads, each three metres high and weighing 363kg, is coming to Yorkshire Sculpture Park for an unusual 12 month period, as part of the park’s 40th anniversary celebrations. It’s a re-imagining by Weiwei of the 12 bronze heads representing the traditional Chinese zodiac that once adorned the fountain-clock at the imperial summer palace retreat in Beijing, Yuanming Yuan (or ‘Garden of Perfect Brightness’). This zodiac fountain (or clepsydra) used water to tell the time, with water pouring from a different bronze head every two hours. However, during the ransacking and burning of the palace by British and French armies in 1860 during the Second Opium War, the heads disappeared.
The story has become symbolic of the debate on the politics of ownership, cultural history, repatriation and authenticity, with only seven of the original 12 heads having been returned to China, with the location of the other five unknown. The controversy blew up again in 2009 when the rabbit and rat head sculptures, which had been part of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent, came up for auction at Christie’s after the fashion designer’s death. Chinese bidder Cai Mingchao won the auction with a bid of £6.3m, but refused to pay in protest at the sale; finally, Christie’s donated the two sculptures back to China in 2013, and they were installed in the National Museum.
Weiwei’s reinterpretation of the sculptures not only extends the artist’s fascination with the relationship between originals, copies and ‘fakes’, but has also been itself migrated on a global tour since May 2011. Welcomed and accepted in locations internationally with a freedom that isn’t available to everyone, Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads has become one of the most viewed sculpture projects in the history of contemporary art. It has, at times, enjoyed a greater freedom than its artist, who was kept in secret captivity by Chinese authorities (with his passport confiscated) for 81 days; in 2014, the Zodiac Heads were hooded for their exhibition in Chicago as a reminder that the artist was still confined to China. Now, the installation will take up residence in the open air space of YSP’s Lower Park.