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Ai Weiwei with the “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold” in his home in Beijing, 2010.

LONDON (AFP).– A set of 12 gold-plated animal head sculptures by China’s Ai Weiwei sold for £2.8 million ($4.3 million, 3.8 million euros) at auction on Thursday, setting a new record for the dissident artist’s work.

The 2010 work « Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads » led a contemporary art sale by auction house Philips in London.

The 12 sculptures represent the Chinese zodiac: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig, each head mounted on a pedestal.

The pieces are modelled on smaller heads designed in the 18th century by two European Jesuits at the court of Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong.

The originals formed a fountain water clock at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, but were ransacked by French and British troops in 1860.

Ai worked from the seven remaining originals and imagined the five heads that had not survived, drawing on depictions in tapestry and print for the dragon.

The dissident artist is noted for his controversial relationship with heritage, infamously smashing a Han Dynasty Urn in a performance work in 1995.

Auction house Philips said that though the animal head sculptures were a recreation of an older work, they achieved « glorious aesthetic coherence » and make a comment on authenticity.

« The fake is invested with the power to revive the past, » the auctioneers said in a press release.

« The marriage that is made -– troubled, yet oddly serene –- offers a lustrous exhibition of what might be a brighter, less confused and more beautiful future. »

Another Ai Weiwei work sold at the auction was « Coloured vases (in 3 parts) » from 2010, neolithic vases the artist had covered with bright industrial paint, which sold for £182,500 ($280,800, 246,400 euros).

The zodiac sculptures sold were the first complete set to come to auction, and one of eight gilded sets made, plus four artist’s proofs.

Further sets of a much larger version of the animal sculptures have also been made in bronze.

The works have been displayed in art museums and public spaces around the world in a travelling exhibition since 2010.

Also sold at the auction was a 1980 work by US artist Andy Warhol, « Diamond Dust Shoes », which sold for £2.3 million ($3.5 million, 3.1 million euros). © 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse

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Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei, 2010 (Phillips)


Ai Weiwei, “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold”. Estimate £2,000,000 – 3,000,000. Sold for £2,882,500. Photo Philips.

gold-plated bronze
Rat: 71 x 33 x 53 cm (27 7/8 x 12 7/8 x 20 7/8 in.) Ox: 74 x 51 x 43 cm (29 1/8 x 20 1/8 x 16 7/8 in.) Tiger: 66 x 38 x 43 cm (25 7/8 x 14 7/8 x 16 7/8 in.) Rabbit: 71 x 25 x 48 cm (27 7/8 x 9 7/8 x 18 7/8 in.) Dragon: 91 x 46 x 66 cm (35 7/8 x 18 1/8 x 25 7/8 in.) Snake: 71 x 36 x 17 cm (27 7/8 x 14 1/8 x 6 3/4 in.) Horse: 74 x 31 x 56 cm (29 1/8 x 12 1/4 x 22 in.) Ram: 64 x 53 x 41 cm (25 1/4 x 20 7/8 x 16 1/8 in.) Monkey: 69 x 33 x 38 cm (27 1/8 x 12 7/8 x 14 7/8 in.) Rooster: 61 x 23 x 43 cm (24 x 9 x 16 7/8 in.) Dog: 64 x 38 x 48 cm (25 1/4 x 14 7/8 x 18 7/8 in.) Boar: 69 x 41 x 53 cm (27 1/8 x 16 1/8 x 20 7/8 in.)
This work is number 7 from an edition of 8 plus 4 artist’s proofs.

PROVENANCE: Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York

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. I think there’s a strong humorous aspect there.’ – AI WEIWEI, 2011

Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads form perhaps his most monumental and penetrating study into the relationship between the original and the copy. The heads that these are based on once comprised a water clock-fountain in the European-style Garden of Perfect Brightness, owned by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), and were designed in the 1700s by two European Jesuits in his court. This multicultural genesis for Ai’s source was further complicated with the ransacking of the palace in 1860 by French and British troops; some of the zodiac heads were taken to the collections of the French and English courts, and others have appeared in auction houses in London and Beijing. Only seven of the twelve figures are still known to exist. Five were repatriated to China, but ownership of the remaining two is still contested. Their status remains an emotive issue for the country. In 2009, the estate of Yves Saint Laurent put up two heads – a rat and a rabbit – for sale at Christie’s Paris, with estimates of $13 million US each: the Chinese government attempted to prevent the sale, but was overruled by a French court, leading to strained relations with France.

The huge dimensions and almost cartoonish expressions of the animals here are playful, even humorous, but their appealing form grapples with a dark period in the country’s past. The fountain’s destruction became emblematic of a period of violent imperialist intervention in China often referred to as ‘The Century of Humiliation,’ and the wound is still raw. In Ai’s retelling of the story, though, appropriation becomes democratisation, as the objects once reserved only for the gaze of a privileged elite now travel as public artworks available for anybody to see. Compounding this notion is China’s modern status as the global centre for mass-produced commodities (and forgeries) – the artist frequently probes this issue as a springboard for his explorations of authenticity and reproduction. One powerful motif is his Han Dynasty vase covered in household paint, a group of which appear in the present sale. Our relationship to imputed cultural and historical worth is a complicated one that Ai delights in challenging. How important is an object’s ancient heritage in a world that places arbitrary value on so many things? When a China in thrall to Western consumerism acts as antagonist to its own history, can objections to the destructive or creative plunder of original artefacts be taken seriously?

Ai Weiwei himself occupies a position of cultural tension. His father, Ai Qing, was one of China’s most revered modernist poets, yet exiled to remote Xinjiang for twenty years from 1958 as a rightist: Ai Weiwei, born in 1957, thus entered the world as both a political exile and as a member of the artistic elite. This inheritance paved the way for the social activism and staunch advocacy of free speech that has characterised his career. Unafraid of highlighting the abuses and injustice of the Chinese state, he has been hounded by the authorities for years, even spending several months imprisoned in 2011.

The gilding of the zodiac here carries a dual weight. Resplendent in beauty, the animals radiate the opulent inheritance of their ancient court setting; but the original heads – as well as Ai’s larger alternate version of this work – were in fact unadorned bronze. The plated gold thus captures a metaphorical gilding, as collective reverence of these objects has only been heightened by their historical theft, perhaps even obscuring aspects of their original significance. Similarly, Ai claims that the concept of the zodiac itself has today been divested of much of its ancient importance: ‘I think today, the Chinese people care about the zodiac for fun. It doesn’t have much impact or symbolic meaning.’ Elaborating this perhaps contentious statement, he situates his work in a Western tradition of iconic image-making. ‘When Andy Warhol painted Mao in the 1960s and 1970s, I don’t think many people understood Mao, either — it was just this image that people knew, like Marilyn Monroe or somebody. So they might see these zodiac animals like that — like Mickey Mouse. They’re just animals. Eleven real animals and one mystic animal.’ (Ai Weiwei, ‘My Work is Always a Readymade,’ in Susan Delson (ed.), Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals, Munich, London, NY: Prestel, 2011, p.63). Much like the reliquary serialisation of Warhol’s Marilyns and Maos, Ai’s gilded heads manifest a meditation on the power of pure image in a world of shifting historical context.

Working from the seven originals that remain, the artist and his team had to creatively imagine the five heads that are missing. This forced them to draw upon other sources for ‘authentic’ Chinese portrayals of these creatures, such as the dragon, which is based on images from tapestry and print. In spite of this, the set as a whole maintains glorious aesthetic coherence, challenging the idea that the original group was a work of perfection whose loss is an irredeemable tragedy. The fake is invested with the power to revivify the past, and the marriage that is made – troubled, yet oddly serene – offers a lustrous exhibition of what might be a brighter, less confused and more beautiful future.


Ai Weiwei, Coloured vases (in 3 parts), 2010. Estimate £100,000 – 150,000Sold for £182,500. Photo Philips.

industrial paint on Neolithic vases, in 3 parts
(i) 29.2 x 27.9 x 27.9 cm (11 1/2 x 11 x 11 in.) (ii) 26.7 x 22.9 x 22.9 cm (10 1/2 x 9 x 9 in.) (iii) 34.3 x 25.4 x 25.4 cm (13 1/2 x 10 x 10 in.)
Signed and dated ‘Weiwei 2010 12-3’ on the underside of the third vase.

PROVENANCE: Private Collection

We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well.’ – ALFRED JARRY, 1899

Ancient vases are smothered in cheap, brightly coloured household paint. Where do we draw a line between art and vandalism? Ai Weiwei aims to address this question, problematising issues of history, cultural value, and authenticity. These themes have been central to his work for over twenty years: in 1994, he painted a 2000 year old Han Dynasty urn with the Coca Cola logo, and an iconic photograph from 1995 shows him dropping another to smash on the floor (famed collector Uli Sigg, who purchased the Coca Cola urn, was photographed in 2012 dropping his own in homage). The 2009 series Dust to Dust comprises more Neolithic pottery from 3,000 – 5,000 BC, crushed to powder and placed in glass vessels.

These vases have scandalised many, for varying reasons. Last year one of a group on display in Miami’s Pérez Art Museum was smashed by local artist Maximo Caminero in protest against the gallery’s focus on international artists; news reports screamed that he was to be sued for $1 million US (a vastly inflated figure), serving to highlight how Ai Weiwei’s perceived desecration of the artefact had ironically only heightened its monetary value. Other cultural critics have lamented his gaudy obliteration of irreplaceable pieces of ancient craft.

In this controversial process, however, the artist examines a particularly Chinese dialogue with cultural ownership. Ai Weiwei purchased the vases from antique dealers, so is legally free to do as he wishes with them, much as Uli Sigg was free to smash the urn in his collection. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government itself encouraged the destruction of ancient artefacts; modern China’s mass-produced fixation on western values compounds this loss of selfhood. China is confronted with the iconoclasm and trauma of its own past. This is a provocative and potentially nihilistic gesture, but creates a new work of art: in their bold treatment of history, politics and tradition, Ai Weiwei’s urns enact the vital role that destruction plays in the redefining and renewal of culture.