a long strange trip

Circle of life: Artist Ai Weiwei's public installation turns heads at Hermann Park

Circle of life: Artist Ai Weiwei's public installation turns heads at Hermann Park

When 800-pound animal heads are unloaded from a truck in Hermann Park, people tend to stop and stare.

It's not as strange as it sounds, actually . . . The bronze noggins are part of Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, a traveling public installation by controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on view in the park through June, thanks to support from the Houston Arts Alliance.

Last week, CultureMap joined HAA's CEO Jonathon Glus and civic art director Matthew Lennon to watch crews place the 12 animal heads along McGovern Lake, just east of the Houston Zoo.

A critic of censorship and human rights violations, Ai W eiwei has found himself in the position of playing both an art-world hero as well as an outspoken anti-government dissident.

"It's interesting to see how this area is redefined," Glus said. "For people coming from the zoo, this is usually just a location on the way to another part of the park. With the art, it has a new identity."

Siting the project was no small task, especially considering Ai's ongoing struggles with Chinese authorities. A critic of censorship and human rights violations, the artist has found himself in the position of playing both an art-world hero as well as an outspoken anti-government dissident.

While the first role has earned Ai international respect and major commissions like the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics, the second has lead to torture, imprisonment and, at the moment, a heavily-restricted travel visa.

"Amazingly, we were still able to work with the artist in siting the zodiac heads," Lennon explained. "Thanks to a U.S. coordinator and Google Maps, Ai was able to be involved in the Houston project from the start."

Cultural baggage

Created by two European Jesuits serving an 18th-century Qing Dynasty emperor, the original animal heads adorned a fountain on the grounds of a Beijing summer palace named Yuanming Yuan.

At the close of the Second Opium War in 1860, the 12 heads were looted as French and British troops destroyed and ransacked the palace.

The event marked a humiliating period in China's history and, as the sculptures started to resurface in 2000, the government managed to reclaim five. In 2009, Chinese officials unsuccessfully blocked the sale of two heads belonging to fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

Thanks to historic engravings, images of the recovered sculptures and a considerable degree of artistic license, Ai Weiwei has recreated the full set of zodiac heads, including the final five missing pieces — a dragon, snake, goat, rooster and dog.

Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads will be on display in Hermann Park from Mar. 3 through June 3 before traveling to Princeton University and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.

The public installation runs concurrently with the official April opening of the Asia Society's new Texas headquarters in the Museum District as well as a special Ai Weiwei exhibit at Architecture Center Houston, opening April 19.

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Art handlers carefully moved Ai Weiwei's Zodiac Heads through Hermann Park to a site at the edge of McGovern Lake. Photo by Tyler Rudick
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Wrapped in plastic and brown paper packing material, the 12 heads traveled to Houston from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Tyler Rudick
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Representatives from the Houston Arts Alliance and the City of Houston oversaw the placement of 12 half-ton bronze sculptures. Photo by Tyler Rudick
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A piece representing the Year of the Snake for all those deep-thinking mystics with a penchant for self-doubt. Photo by Tyler Rudick
News_Ai Weiwei_Zodiac_sculptures_heads_February 2012
News_Ai Weiwei_Zodiac_sculptures_heads_February 2012
News_Ai Weiwei_Zodiac_sculptures_heads_February 2012
News_Ai Weiwei_Zodiac_sculptures_heads_February 2012