Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, 2011
Ai Weiwei's bronze "Zodiac Heads" are the artist's personal interpretation of the 12 Chinese animal heads that represent the signs of the zodiac, which once decorated the Yuanming Yang imperial retreat in Beijing. Originally designed in the 18th century by a pair of European Jesuits, these sculptures were stolen in 1860 when the palace was ransacked by French and British troops. They are now priceless artefacts, coveted by international collectors, and have been popping up in Western auction houses. This prompted the artist to produce his own sculptural replicas, which combine Eastern and Western art in a single object and question ideas about authenticity and ownership. As he explains: "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 explains. "I want this to be seen as an object that doesn't have a monumental quality, but rather is a funny piece people can relate to or interpret on many different levels, because everybody has a zodiac connection."
As a special commission, Ai has designed a series of wine labels for Donum based on the Circle of Animals, so that each vintage corresponds to the Chinese animal for that year, beginning with the Year of the Horse in 2014.
Born in Beijing, Ai spent his childhood years in northwestern China, where his poet father Ai Qing was sentenced to years of hard labor during the Cultural Revolution. After Mao Zedong's death, the family settled in Beijing, where Ai Weiwei studied animation and founded an avant-garde art group. Feeling stifled in China, Ai set off for the U.S. in his early twenties, where he discovered the work of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, two artists who would greatly influence his subsequent career. Returning to China in 1993, Ai developed a fascination for historic Chinese art and architecture and their systematic destruction by the Communist government. He articulated that through caustic works that turned traditional Chinese artefacts into works of Pop or conceptual art. Increasingly critical of the Beijing government, he was arrested in 2011 and secretly detained for 81 days, an experience he transformed into a large-scale diorama installation exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Closer to home, his @Large exhibition on Alcatraz in 2014 also focussed on ideas of freedom, imprisonment and human rights. Ai now lives and works between Beijing and Berlin.