This installation consists of a dozen gilded bronze sculptures representing the animal symbols from the traditional Chinese zodiac. Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei drew inspiration for the twelve heads from those originally located at Yuanming Yuan (Old Summer Palace), an imperial retreat of palaces and European-style gardens built outside of Beijing in the 18th and 19th centuries by Emperor Qianlong. Designed and engineered by two European Jesuits, Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoit, the heads originally functioned as an ornate fountain clock that would spout water at two-hour intervals.
Once accessible only to the elite of 18th-century Chinese society, the garden was destroyed and looted by Anglo-French troops in 1860 during the Second Opium War, displacing the original zodiac heads. The seven heads known to exist (Monkey, Pig, Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, and Horse) have all been returned to China. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold engages issues of looting, repatriation, and cultural heritage while expanding upon ongoing themes in Ai’s work of the “fake” and “copy” in relation to the original.