Ai Weiwei - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 18, 2017 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    San Diego, The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; East Hampton, The LongHouse Reserve; Dallas, The Crow Collection of Asian Art; Oxfordshire, Blenheim Palace; Palm Springs Museum of Art; Portland Art Museum; Phoenix Art Museum; Tucson Museum of Art; Reno, Nevada Museum of Art; Skovvej, Arken Museum of Modern Art, Ai Weiwei Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, February 22, 2012 – June 2019 (another example exhibited)
    Montreal, Musee d’art Contemporain de Montreal, The Zoo Exhibition, May 24 September 3, 2012 (another example exhibited)
    Moscow, The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Personal Choice, February 14 – April 6, 2014 (another example exhibited)
    Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Ai Weiwei – Evidence, April 3 – July 7, 2014 (another example exhibited and illustrated throughout)
    Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, December 11, 2015 – April 24, 2016 (another example exhibited)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “….art is not the end but the beginning. Art is not the end. The product is never the end but should be the beginning. Otherwise art has no life.” Ai Weiwei

    “As an artist, I value other artists’ efforts to challenge the definition of beauty, goodness, and the will of the times. These roles cannot be separated. Maybe I’m just an undercover artist in the disguise of a dissident; I couldn’t care less about the implications.” Ai Weiwei

    In the present lot, Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei (b. 1957, Beijing) has replicated the twelve zodiac animal heads, originally part of a water clock that encircled the fountain-clock of Yuanming Yuan or the Old Summer Palace, an imperial palace complex outside Beijing. The zodiac symbols were arranged around a fountain designed by European Jesuits a century earlier for the court of the Qianlong Emperor. Towards the end of the Opium Wars, which pressured Chinese imperial rulers to open up their country further to Western trade and influence, the palace was sacked and looted in 1860 by British and French soldiers, under the direction of the 8th Earl of Elgin (coincidentally the son of the man who removed the "Elgin marbles" from Greece). The twelve original zodiac heads were stolen. The plundering of the palace and looting of the twelve animal heads over 150 years ago still remains a source of contention for the Chinese government, which has been working to repatriate all twelve of the heads.

    Over the last ten years, prominent Chinese collectors have acquired a large number of items at auction with significant cultural value and have donated them back to Chinese public institutions, including seven of the Chinese animal heads, which now are located in museums in Beijing. In 2009, controversy around these disputed objects arose again, triggered by the news that two of the bronze animal heads, the rabbit and rat, were to be offered at Christie’s as part of Yves Saint Laurent’s vast collection sale. The offering of the works in the sale was widely protested; the successful bidder was a Chinese art dealer who engaged in the bidding as a public disapproval of their inclusion with no intention of paying. One year later, Ai Weiwei began his exploration of the subject matter of cultural restitution, executing a series of the twelve heads in both bronze and gold gilded – plated bronze. Aware of the tension surrounding these historic sculptures, Ai Weiwei chose to re-create and complete the now incomplete ancient zodiac, as five of the original heads (dragon, dog, snake, sheep and rooster) have never resurfaced and are thus believed to be lost. As the artist explains, “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 quoted in “My Work is Always a Readymade,” Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals, London, 2011, p.52) In order to recreate the missing heads Ai Wewei had to do creative research into the stylistic depictions of animals within the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

    Continuing his ongoing exploration into the “fake” or “copy” of an original, Ai Weiwei chose in the present series to coat the twelve animal heads in gold, even though the originals were in fact unadorned bronze. This artistic decision elevates the sculptures’ status as objects to be revered and worshipped for their brilliant, gleaming surfaces. Their original theft only further heightens the mystique around these series of sculptures, so desirable that to this day the effort continues to locate and retrieve them. Their singular desirability and authenticity is subverted by their multiple reproductions and modified redesign, as they are executed by Ai Weiwei in an edition of 8 plus 4 artist’s proofs. The artist explains, “My work is always dealing with real or fake authenticity, and what’s the value and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings. I think [there’s] a strong humorous aspect there. So I wanted to make a complete set [of zodiac heads], including the seven original and the missing five.” By touring worldwide these complete sets of twelve zodiac animal heads, Ai Weiwei has shifted their original site specificity and cultural, imperial status towards a universal, democratized and inclusive one, saying “I think the public deserves the best,” he said. “Before, only a pope or an emperor could see those kinds of things” (Ai Weiwei quoted in Hirshhorn Presents “Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” April 10, 2012). Ai Weiwei has spent much of his artistic career calling into question the importance of cultural relics, by re-interpreting epic public works of his artistic forbearers, many of whom belong to the Western European tradition. Even the twelve zodiac heads, as Ai Weiwei pointed out, are not Chinese national treasures in terms of their authorship, saying “It was designed by an Italian and made by a Frenchman for a Qing dynasty emperor, which actually is somebody who invaded China. So if we talk about ‘national treasure,’ which nation do we talk about?” (Ai Weiwei quoted in Hirshhorn Presents “Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” April 10, 2012). Ai Weiwei’s creative defacement of ancient objects, and the calling into question of their associated monetary and nationalist value, transforms them into critically-minded contemporary artworks that interrogate China’s acquisitive repatriation of an imagined past. By amending and forging the partially “lost” treasures of China, the artist reveals how venerable claims to national patrimony and artistic tradition can be revisited and critiqued. The Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Bronze and Gold series have been exhibited at nearly forty international venues since the official launch of this body of work in 2011, making it one of the most viewed sculpture projects in the history of global contemporary art.

Property from a Distinguished Private Collection, United Kingdom


Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads

gilded bronze on artist's huanghuali veneered wood bases
Rat 29 1/2 x 13 1/8 x 21 in. (74.9 x 33.3 x 53.3 cm.)
Ox 29 3/4 x 19 1/4 x 18 3/4 in. (75.6 x 48.9 x 47.6 cm.)
Tiger 28 1/8 x 14 x 17 1/2 in. (71.4 x 35.6 x 44.5 cm.)
Rabbit 30 x 13 x 21 1/8 in. (76.2 x 33 x 53.7 cm.)
Dragon 35 7/8 x 18 1/2 x 24 3/8 in. (91 x 47 x 62 cm.)
Snake 27 3/4 x 13 1/8 x 17 in. (70.6 x 33.3 x 43.3 cm.)
Horse 29 x 12 1/2 x 20 1/2 in. (73.7 x 31.8 x 52.1 cm.)
Goat 25 1/4 x 20 7/8 x 16 1/8 in. (64 x 53 x 41 cm.)
Monkey 27 1/8 x 12 7/8 x 14 7/8 in. (69 x 33 x 38 cm.)
Rooster 34 x 13 x 19 1/8 in. (86.4 x 33 x 48.6 cm.)
Dog 25 1/4 x 14 7/8 x 21 1/8 in. (64 x 38 x 53.6 cm.)
Pig 27 1/8 x 16 1/8 x 20 7/8 in. (69 x 41 x 53 cm.)
huanghuali veneered wood base 31 1/2 x 19 7/8 x 19 7/8 in. (80 x 50.5 x 50.5 cm.)

Executed in 2010, this work is number 5 from an edition of 8 plus 4 artist's proofs. Each Zodiac Head is accompanied by an individual certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.

$2,500,000 - 3,500,000 

Sold for $3,370,000

Contact Specialist
Kate Bryan
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1267

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 18 May 2017