Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has an innate ability for making bold statements, and has always been a master at catching the world’s attention with a perfectly judged act or word. Now his reinterpretion of the 12 Zodiac Heads looted by European soldiers from China’s forbidden city in 1860 have reached The Nevada Museum for Art. This and his other series of Zodiac Heads have been touring the world, taking neat and elegant swipes at China’s growing nationalist agenda. 

Originally commissioned by Qing emperors in the 18 and 19th century, the original Zodiac Heads were designed and created by an Italian Jesuit brother and a French Catholic priest, and initially acted as an ornate fountain clock sprouting water at two-hour intervals. It is perhaps a bitter irony that the British officer who ordered the destruction and looting of the Imperial Palace in 1860 was Lord Elgin, the son of the 7th Earl of Elgin, the notorious purchaser of the Elgin Marbles once part of Greece’s Parthenon and now housed in the British Museum.

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, 2010, Sculpture

So far seven of the 12 Chinese animal heads have been found and are displayed in various museums in Beijing. The remaining five missing heads are considered a huge embarrassment for China and their continued disappearance have been described as an “open wound.” Many Chinese believe the marble heads are National treasures, unsurprisingly however, Ai Weiwei does not see it that way: “they are not a national treasure, they were designed by a French and Italian for a Qing Dynasty Emperor who humiliated China.” Whichever way you see it, the Zodiac fountain (Haiyantang) has become the most visible examples of attempts to repatriate Chinese art and cultural artifacts.

Ai Weiwei’s decision to cast 12 new Zodiac heads in what is the artist's first major public sculpture project, engages in ideas of repatriation and cultural heritage, while expanding his deep-seated themes concerning fakes and copies. He has gone on record to state “my work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings.” He is famous for having defaced numerous highly-valuable Han Dynasty vases and most memorably destroying one. In a highly provocative gesture the performance, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995 finds Weiwei allowing an 2,000 year old Urn to fall from his hands and smash to the ground.

Part of Weiwei’s wariness stems from his concern that the demand for repatriation for the missing heads is inspiring a rise in patriotism in China. His initial interest in the Zodiac heads was piqued after an auction held in 2009 at Christie’s, Paris, saw Cai Mingchao, the winning bidder at an astonishing €30 million, refuse to pay for the two heads. He described his sabotage of the high-profile auction as an act of patriotism.

Five of the 12 heads taken from the fountain have had to be completely reimagined by the artist, and these include a fiery-looking dragon and a malevolent-looking rooster. Now of course Nevada can enjoy Ai Weiwei’s gold-patina series of China’s greatest sore point, a deeply subversive and highly-topical work.

Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads will be on view from the 23rd of July through to the 23rd of October at the Nevada Museum of Art.