Ai Weiwei - Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Sunday, June 28, 2015 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    Sao Paulo Biennale, Pavilhão Ciccillo Matarazzo, 25 September - 12 December 2010 (Present lot exhibited)
    London, Somerset House,The Fountain Court, 12 May 2011- 26 June 2011 (another example exhibited)
    New York, Pulitzer Fountain, Central Park, 4 May 2011 - 15 July 2011 (Present lot exhibited)
    Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 20 August 2011 - 12 February 2012 (Present lot exhibited)
    Taipei, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 29 October 2011 - 29 January 2012 (another example exhibited)
    Houston, Hermann Park, 25 February - 1 June 2012 (another example exhibited)
    Kiev, Ukraine, Ukrainian Biennale of Modern Art, 17 May - 31 July 31, 2012 (another example exhibited)
    Washington, Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, 21 June 2012 - 9 August 2012 (Present lot exhibited)
    Pittsburgh, The Andy Warhol Museum & Carnegie Museum of Art, 1 October 2012 - 31 December 2012 (another example exhibited)
    Miami, FL Perez Art Museum, 3 December 2013 - 16 March 2014 (another example exhibited)
    Cleveland, OH, Cleveland Museum of Art, 27 July 2013 - 16 March 16 2014 (another example exhibited)
    Mexico City, Museo Nacional de Antropología, 15 August 2014 - 30 November 2014 (another example exhibited)

  • Literature

    S. Delson, ed., Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals, London: Prestel, 2011, (illustrated in colour throughout)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Underpinning Ai Weiwei’s practice is an investigation into the relation between history and value. Creating work that is by turns iconoclastic and regenerative, he recognises that an object’s significance is always subject to change. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is a towering expression of this sensibility, both ludic and highly serious. Aware of ambiguities, of tensions, and of conflicts, the piece responds with fierce intelligence to the complexities of Sino-European history.

    Modelled on a series of eighteenth century sculptures, the zodiac heads have a specific point of reference. The original pieces belonged to the Emperor Qianlong’s Garden of Perfect Brightness in the palace of Yuanming Yuan, where they formed part of a decorative clock fountain. Designed by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione and representing the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, they exist at a cross-cultural intersection. The ‘realistic’ treatment of feather and fur is at odds with traditional Chinese modes of stylisation; as Weiwei puts it ‘the style is very interesting – Chinese, but mixed. It is a Western understanding of a Chinese way.’ (Ai Weiwei, ‘My Work is Always a Readymade,’ Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals, Munich, New York, London: Prestel Publishing, 2011, p. 51).

    From this point of inception grew a narrative fraught with tension. In 1860, during the final year of the Second Opium War, the heads were among a vast haul of loot removed by British and French troops and taken to Europe. The general who ordered the sacking of the palace was James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin – son of the Elgin who so famously removed the Parthenon statues which remain in the British Museum to this day. As icons of a critical moment in China’s ‘Century of Humiliation,’ a period characterised by violent imperialist intervention, the heads have become loaded with resonance. A source of ongoing resentment, their contentious status has only been heightened by recent appearances at auction in New York, Hong Kong and Paris.

    Today only seven of the original twelve are known to exist. Recasting the heads in bronze, as in the present lot, and also in a smaller gold-plated series, Ai is interested in fullness. His revisionary impulse is inflected by the addition of the missing heads, (re)constructing a putative whole. As he avers, ‘without twelve, it’s not a zodiac. So the idea was first, to complete it, and more important, to complete it the way I think it should be. Then that becomes solid, because I did it. The new event of my twelve zodiac heads becomes a new factor.’ (Ai Weiwei, ‘My Work is Always a Readymade,’ Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals, Munich, New York, London: Prestel Publishing, 2011, p.52). Ai recognises that the act of completion is also an act of creation and interpretation. To imagine the absent heads he worked from an array of sources, incorporating material from the Ming and Qing Dynasties as well as from contemporary observation. His approach was eclectic, poised between the imitative and the inventive.

    The artist’s creativity is not limited to the five missing animals. Whilst Castiglione’s originals sat atop a series of human figures, Ai’s hover on slender columns – quite literally disembodied, implicitly recalling the seizure of the fountainheads. The potency of this gesture is illuminated by his notion that ‘we never change the subject, we always change the interpretation, we change the platform, the base of the condition.’ (Ai Weiwei, ‘My Work is Always a Readymade’, Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals, Munich, New York, London: Prestel Publishing, 2011, p.59). This is true of Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads in a metaphoric and literal sense. In their original iteration, the pieces were adjunct to a complex hydraulic substructure: designed by the Jesuit Michel Benoist and executed by Chinese craftsmen, a system ran through the figures’ bodies so that water spouted from their mouths. When the heads were stolen, their platform changed – they were severed from their erstwhile bedrock. In the present lot, we are presented with another transformation. In place of bodies are febrile stems whose bark-like ridges recall organic forms. Ai’s notion of the platform relates not only to the physical structures, but also to the ideas, assumptions and experiences from which they emerge and in which they are entangled.

    This dynamic of reworking is a distinctive feature of Ai’s art, informing many of his projects: whether restructuring household furnishings or defacing Han Dynasty urns, the artist confronts historical material with individualist vigour. In each instance, his use of readymades opens up space for renewal, birthing originality from iconoclasm. Such is the case in the present lot. The heads are vastly enlarged from the scale of the originals, and elevated atop their slim pillars. Looming over the viewer, they are undoubtedly imposing. For all their teeming complexity, they also invite instinctive responses, not least those of awe and enchantment.

    The scale of the heads is not without precedent in the history of Chinese bronze; Ai remains deeply responsive to the past in his art’s materiality. In the West, few ancient bronzes remain in existence. During wartime they were frequently melted down for munitions, or triumphal statues refashioned for the victor of a conflict; stone and marble sculpture has a far better survival rate. In China the alloy has a history going back around four thousand years, and far more bronze items are preserved. Ritual vessels and weapons were created as symbols of status and power, employed in ceremonial banquets and entombed with a noble on his death, or created expressly as grave goods for use in the afterlife. These cauldrons, cups and bowls were not used for eating and drinking but were oversized and elaborate, decorative in purpose: Ai’s transformation of scale likewise alters his objects’ utility. Divorced utterly from their fountain setting, the zodiac heads become purely ornamental. Their heroic stature, however, embodies the aura of significance conferred upon them by nationalist fervour – an aura that many assert is in fact rather at odds with the original work’s intrinsic aesthetic value. Ai has said that he ‘want[s] this to be seen as an object that doesn’t have a monumental quality, but rather is a funny piece.’ (Ai Weiwei, ‘My Work is Always a Readymade,’ Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals, Munich, New York, London: Prestel Publishing, 2011, p.50). The rather cartoonish expressions of the animals bear this out: they are magnificent in scale but oddly whimsical in figuration.

    Ironically, it seems likely that the heads were an amusing curiosity for Emperor Qianlong himself, as opposed to venerated objects of craftsmanship. The many artworks and designs that survive from his court bear witness to imperial fondness for a visual syncretism between European and Chinese aesthetics, masterminded by Castiglione. Qianlong was a proud internationalist. As relics of his gardens, the heads hardly constitute a quintessence of Chinese culture. The necessary trappings of cultivation, they are more modish accessory than national treasure. It is through subsequent museological fetishization that that they have been transformed into talismans of Chinese humiliation: the gardens’ destruction forms a core part of a patriotic curriculum, and the heads a touchstone for bellicose nationalist pride. Meanwhile Chen Lusheng, deputy director of the National Museum of China, has dismissed the heads as ‘water faucets made by foreigners.’ (Wang Ruoyao and Wang Juebin, ‘Too early to celebrate return of looted Chinese relics,’ Xinhua, 28 June 2013).

    In a sense, highlighting the figures’ whimsy is a recursive gesture in that it returns to their straightforward and optimistic signification for Emperor Qianlong. But the bronze edition of Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads also looks forward and outward: several copies of the work have travelled the world, touring public spaces such as Somerset House in London and the Pulitzer fountain in New York. Rather than enclosed in a garden viewed only by the imperial elite, they have opened up to worldwide debate and scrutiny. ‘I think the public deserves the best,’ Ai has said; ‘Before, only a pope or an emperor could see these kinds of things. Now you can see them in a public garden. People don’t have too much information about the work. They should just look at the objects and see the connection through their own experience. If the work can do that, it will already be successful.’ (Ai Weiwei, ‘My Work is Always a Readymade,’ Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals, Munich, New York, London: Prestel Publishing, 2011, p.51).

    The work’s dual title reflects the hermeneutic freedom that Ai advocates. On one hand this is simply a Circle of Animals; yet when read as Zodiac Heads, the group is imbued with both astrological potency and the tense histories of Yuanming Yuan. Ai himself has claimed that ‘I think today the Chinese people care about the zodiac for fun. It doesn’t have much impact or symbolic meaning. It’s another way to look at humans as a species – you have a blood type, a Chinese zodiac animal, and a Western one.’ (Ai Weiwei, ‘My Work is Always a Readymade,’ Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals, Munich, New York, London: Prestel Publishing, 2011, p.63). Although Ai downplays this context, the animals of the zodiac are assigned calendar years, hours on the clock and particular virtues, and this offers yet another framework through which the figures resound.

    Ai Weiwei probes the manifold complexities of the zodiac heads as sociocultural objects, rather than simplifying their history. He pokes fun at what he sees as politicised grandstanding on China’s part, an aggrieved posture based on malapropism, and in doing so paradoxically elevates the heads to an aesthetic impact far greater than that of their hybrid progenitors. As resonant idols of past and present, the heads embody a rich vein of conflict, contradiction and difficulty that characterises modern China’s relationship with its own heritage as with the outside world. Among all of Ai’s work they stand apart in their poised and masterful inquest into these complex historical layers, while offering a magnetic visual appeal: they are both sublime and ridiculous, galvanised by the tensions between patrimony and patricide. The artist-antagonist finds originality in plunder, and recasts tradition in a modern drama of global significance.


Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads

Rat: 293 x 130 x 163 cm (115 3/8 x 51 1/8 x 64 1/8 in.)
Ox: 322 x 152 x 157 cm (126 3/4 x 59 7/8 x 61 3/4 in.)
Tiger: 310 x 130 x 155 cm (122 x 51 1/8 x 61 in.)
Rabbit: 325 x 130 x 150 cm (127 7/8 x 51 1/8 x 59 in.)
Dragon: 355 x 158 x 190 cm (139 3/4 x 62 1/4 x 74 3/4 in.)
Snake: 299 x 130 x 150 cm (117 3/4 x 51 1/8 x 59 in.)
Horse: 302 x 130 x 147 cm (118 7/8 x 51 1/8 x 57 7/8 in.)
Ram: 310 x 154 x 156 cm (122 x 60 5/8 x 61 3/8 in.)
Monkey: 300 x 130 x 130 cm (118 1/8 x 51 1/8 x 51 1/8 in.)
Rooster: 380 x 130 x 150 cm (149 5/8 x 51 1/8 x 59 in.)
Dog: 310 x 130 x 165 cm (122 x 51 1/8 x 64 7/8 in.)
Boar: 312 x 130 x 175 cm (122 7/8 x 51 1/8 x 68 7/8 in.)

This work is number 1 from an edition of 6 plus 2 artist’s proofs. Each Zodiac head is accompanied by an individual certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.

£3,000,000 - 5,000,000 

Sold for £3,442,500

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
[email protected]
+44 207 318 4063

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London 29 June 2015 7pm