Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads has been a popular attraction at the Hirshhorn since its arrival in April. Surrounding the fountain in the center of the Hirshhorn, the zodiac heads have an interactive appeal as viewers pose for pictures in front of their zodiac animal. Much like Western astrological signs, the Chinese zodiac signs also have specific characteristics and traits assigned to them – both good and bad. A person’s zodiac symbol was (and is) culturally significant in many parts of Asia, where a person’s zodiac sign is sometimes seriously considered when entering a relationship.
This cultural significance is something that Ai Weiwei likes to utilize in many of his works to communicate his messages, often indicated by referencing objects that are almost synonymous with Chinese traditions and values.
In several of his works he documents his destruction of these objects (most often ceramic antiquities, such as Ming vases), conveying messages about China’s understanding of their past. The Zodiac heads signify many different, sometimes contrasting, roads of thought the Chinese have about their country. There have been periods of Chinese history where tradition and your ancestry were to be revered while, in more recent times, attachment to things of the past was to be avoided to the point of destruction and violence. Viewers are to question whether they believe he is making art or destroying it.
Ai’s notoriety came from his dissident opinions about the Chinese government and the government’s actions in response. However, far before these events, Ai Weiwei, and many Chinese artists like himself, were busy creating and developing art following a period of intensive censorship. The Hirshhorn library has a growing collection of books about not only Ai Weiwei’s current works, but also his early works including a book of his photography which practically serves as a documentation of his time studying New York. Many of our books include interviews about specific pieces and about his motivations. As I mentioned briefly before, our materials on him are growing and we are happy to not only expand our materials on this artist but also the amount of materials we can provide our patrons on contemporary Chinese art.