Seeds of change

Written on May 12, 2011 by Banafsheh Farhangmehr in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Culture has become a forum for the west to express its misgivings over the resurgent east. The art world can say things that the business or political communities, more pragmatic in their concerns, can’t afford to say.

This week will see the unveiling of 12 striking animal heads cast in bronze, in the handsome 18th-century courtyard of London’s Somerset House. The “Circle of Animals”, as it styles itself, has connections with the same historical era. They are gigantic recreations of the Zodiac sculptures that once adorned the fountain-clock of Yuanming Yuan, an 18th-century imperial retreat outside Beijing. The last thing they look like is a contemporary art installation but that is exactly what they are.

The creator of the animal heads is the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a man whose playful and provocative way with his art has led him into serious trouble in his homeland. Ai was arrested earlier this year and has been accused of unspecified economic crimes. But international observers fear that the real reason for his detention is his consistent criticism of the Chinese government.

A widespread international campaign has thrust Ai’s name into prominence. From London’s riverside, we can observe the slogan “Release Ai Weiwei” on the side of Tate Modern. The sculptor Anish Kapoor has dedicated his new commission at the Grand Palais in Paris to Ai. “His arrest, disappearance and alleged torture are unacceptable. When governments silence artists it bears witness to their barbarity,” Kapoor said.

It is difficult to discern any political resonance in Ai’s work from the startled bronze heads of Somerset House. The original heads were pillaged when Yuanming Yuan was ransacked by French and British troops in 1860 and there have been fervent official attempts to buy them back – for instance, at last year’s Yves Saint Laurent sale. Only seven of the 12 originals have been located, and “Circle of Animals” might have been a none-too-subtle appeal for their repatriation.

Ai has all but explicitly denied this interpretation of his work. “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity and value,” he has explained. What he really cares about is showing his art to a wide public. “It’s a work that everyone can understand, including children and people who are not in the art world,” he said.

Continue reading in Financial Times


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