Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads Raise Dizzying Issues

The whole world is changing, the great jazz musician Duke Ellington remarked in 1971. Consequently, he added, no one will be able to retain his or her identity and it becomes hard to tell who’s imitating whom.

The sculptural installation “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei currently installed in the courtyard of Somerset House, London, (through June 26, and concurrently in Grand Army Plaza, New York, until July 15) is a perfect demonstration of Duke’s point.

This is, like many of Ai’s ideas, a deceptively simple notion that sets off a disorientating, even dizzying, chain of thoughts. It’s a recreation of 12 bronze heads of beasts, representing the Chinese astrological signs, that once decorated a combined fountain and water clock in the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing.

That might sound straightforward. Ai has learned well the lesson of Marcel Duchamp: how to make the maximum intellectual and aesthetic effect with the minimum means. In this case, the ironies and complexities begin with the origin of the fountain.

It was designed and cast by two Jesuits, Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist, who were resident in China. Castiglione’s work as a painter is an early example of cultural globalization, Eastern and Western in more or less equal measure.

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