Every year, when the weather gets warm, Princeton University students emerge from the Gothic architecture and wade in the reflecting pond on the plaza of the Woodrow Wilson School’s Robertson Hall. In turn, the signs go up that wading is not permitted. Getting one’s toes wet is OK, says the sign, but going into the pool is a sanitation and health hazard. And year after year, local newspapers feature front-page photos of students bathing in the reflecting pond.
Is it an act of defiance, or just a way to cool off on a warm day, to become a part of the beauty of spring, of the fountain, its sculpture, and the Ivy League surroundings?
As I smell the chlorine – an olfactory siren call for swimming – I wonder how Chinese contemporary artist and social activist Ai Weiwei would interpret this annual rite, now that his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads have been installed on the plaza.
August is a slow time at the university, with students not expected back until the end of the summer, but visitors speaking a variety of tongues are stopping to take pictures of friends and family in front of the 10-foot-tall bronze heads on pedestals. Snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, pig, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit and dragon: contemplating which animal represents their personality, pairing accordingly, then reconsidering, trying another.
Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is part of a world tour of the work, which has appeared in cities including Sao Paulo, London, Los Angeles, Taipei, and New York, where it stood outside the Plaza Hotel. The tree-like support columns echo the sinewy columns of Robertson Hall, designed by World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki, and invite climbing. Security guards patrol.
The installation, on view through Aug. 1 2013, reflects a longstanding commitment on the part of the Woodrow Wilson School to engage with human rights issues around the world, as well as the Princeton University Art Museum’s commitment to placing art across the campus, creating opportunities to discover great art in the path of everyday life, according to a statement issued by the art museum.
In Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Ai draws inspiration from sculptures that once adorned the fountain clock at Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat outside Beijing, representing the signs of the Zodiac. Designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Castiglione in the mid-18th century, the original works were looted in 1860 when France and Britain invaded China.
Ai’s re-envisioning of the work represents an intersection of history and politics and is a reflection on the complexities of authenticity and derivation, according to the art museum’s statement. “By reinterpreting art commissioned by a Qing dynasty emperor, designed by an Italian artist, engineered by a French Jesuit mathematician, and accessible only to the elite circles of 18th-century Chinese society—and then sending the resultant sculptures on a worldwide tour—Ai complicates conversations about repatriation, shared cultural heritage and contemporary expectations regarding the democratization of art and public space.”
The dual title of the work addresses the notion that, even for viewers who have no cultural connection to the Chinese zodiac, the sculptures stand as animal figures in their own right, universally accessible to all people.
Born in 1957, Ai Weiwei is one of China’s most prolific and controversial artists. His work in recent years has included collaboration on the design of the Beijing Olympic Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest,” for the 2008 Olympic Games; Sunflower Seeds, an exhibition at London’s Tate Modern featuring 100 million hand-painted porcelain seeds; and innovative uses of social media to advance artistic objectives, free speech and human rights.
Ai has been openly critical of the Chinese government’s stance on human rights, corruption and its coverup, and was held for two months in spring 2011 without any official charges being filed.
He intends to shock: whether dropping and breaking a Han Dynasty urn, or painting Coca Cola on another, or repainting Neolithic vases, even older than Han, he wants to encourage people to look at the past in a different way, and to look at a new way to decide what is valuable.
“The older structures have failed, they don’t work anymore,” he has said. “The old structure relates to classic power.”
Ai used backpacks of children who lost their lives in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to make a statement on the “tofu skin” building standards and negligent Chinese government that led to the loss of so many children’s lives. He was beaten by police for his investigations of shoddy school construction, and had to have emergency surgery for internal bleeding.
In 2010, his newly built studio – part of a Shanghai-condoned cultural district – was destroyed and he was placed under house arrest. He photographed and videotaped the bulldozing, and called it one of his greatest works.
His father, Ai Qing, a poet who studied art in Paris and was jailed when he returned to China, was an important force in his life, even though Ai was forced to grow up in his father’s absence. When released from jail, Ai Qing became a leader of the Communist Party. His art and poetry was used to get young people to join. Then, after Ai was born, Ai Qing was sent to a labor camp with his wife; Ai Weiwei lived without his parents for 16 years.
Ai Weiwei came to the U.S. and lived in New York from 1981 to 1993, studying at Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League. As a conceptual artist, he altered readymade objects.
For his 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, Ai employed 1,600 people in a village where porcelain vases and urns were traditionally made for the emperor. The factories needed new work, and Ai wanted them to learn to adapt their skills to contemporary art. Although so many were employed in the project, few understood it, but were happy for the money they were earning.
Ai has said that art is a tool to set up new questions and open possibilities. He wants people who may not understand art to understand what he is doing.