Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is comprised of twelve animals derived from the Chinese astrological calendar of years, weeks, and hours. The design of these heads was inspired by a specific source: an elaborate fountain created in the 1700s for the gardens of Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat outside of Beijing, China. The Qianlong Emperor commissioned Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit, to create gardens and fountains with a sense of Western opulence. Each zodiac animal corresponds to a two-hour period on a 24-hour cycle. Thus in its original design, each animal sprayed water from its mouth during its corresponding two-hour period.
Conceptually, Circle of Animals evokes a complicated history of cultural exchange, war, looting, and commerce. In 1860 Yuanming Yuan was destroyed by invading English and French armies during the Second Opium War. Many of its treasures, including its zodiac heads, were looted and sold. In the late 1980s, five of these heads were auctioned at Sotheby’s, and have since been repatriated to China. Two heads appeared in a controversial 2009 auction at Christie’s. The whereabouts of the remaining five heads remains unknown. Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals, a re-creation of these heads in bronze, calls to mind ongoing debates surrounding Chinese nationalism and repatriation.