In the last decade, the name of Chinese sculptor Ai Weiwei has become known not only to the art connoisseurs but to a wide public as well. And it has happened both for the right and wrong reasons. Ai Weiwei became a household name during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, as artistic collaborator on the design for the splendid "Bird's Nest," the National Stadium, a symbol of the Olympic spirit. However, in one of his frequent conflicts with Chinese authorities, the artist withdrew his name from the project.
In the last few months, the name of this famous dissident artist again has been in the news because of his imprisonment, allegedly for tax evasion. Now, the artist has been released but prohibited from commenting on his case. The good news is that here in Los Angeles, at the County Museum of Art we have a chance to acquaint ourselves with Ai Weiwei's latest major public sculptural project: twelve monumental bronze sculptures of animal heads, installed in a circle in the museum's courtyard, each ten feet tall.
This Circle of Animals is meant to evoke the famous 18th century Zodiac Heads installed around the fountain clock in the gardens of the Beijing Summer Palace. Unfortunately, in the 1860, these sculptures were looted by British and French troops during the infamous Second Opium War and, though seven of them have since been found, five remain at large. Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals is not a recreation of the original works, but a smart artistic comment on the shameful role of European powers in a messy, painful chapter of Chinese history.
This year, Weiwei's animals have been triumphantly stampeding all over the world, showing off in the palatial courtyard of the Somerset House in London and in Central Park in New York. In both cities, the sculptures were placed, in rather dramatic fashion, in proximity to fountains, evoking the original arrangement in the garden of the Beijing palace.
Now that these Zodiac Heads at last have arrived in L.A., we can see them near the new Lynda Resnick Pavilion, in a circle around not a fountain, but the glass tower of the elevator leading to the underground museum parking garage. I've seen them both in daytime and at night, when they are sadly lost in darkness. Definitely, no one would describe this location as pride of place, and, to tell you the truth, I am at a loss to understand why these sculptures are displayed by the museum in this less-than-dramatic fashion.
Probably, this happened to avoid competition with the nearby Chris Burden installation of hundreds of street lamps, which, especially at night, attracts dozens of visitors who flock there as proverbial moths flying into the light. Yes, it takes special skill and vision to install monumental sculptures outdoors. That's why, every time I pass the Rodin sculptures in the LACMA garden near Chris Burden's Urban Lights, I can feel poor Rodin's unhappiness at being pushed aside and not even given the courtesy of being lit at night.
To see the sculptures of this great French artist installed to maximum effect you should travel to Pasadena, to the Norton Simon Museum, where his sculptures seemingly walk freely through the grounds.
For another example of successful outdoor placement of sculptures, you may want to go to the Getty Center to see the splendid female nude by Maillol, floating majestically above the steps leading to the museum's entrance. So take a look at the photographs of all these works on KCRW's website -- or, even better, go see them with your own eyes -- and let me know your thoughts.
Banner image: Ai-Weiwei, Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, 2011, installed at New York's Pulitzer Fountain, 2011