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May 04 2011

Mayor Bloomberg Addresses the Detention of Ai Weiwei

by Elaine W. Ng

May 4, 2011. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the unveiling of artist-activist Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010), at the Pulitzer Fountain in New York. Photography by Alis Atwell for ArtAsiaPacific.

On May 4, New York City’s Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg unveiled artist Ai Weiwei’s bronze sculptures Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010).

The work is based on 12 Chinese zodiac animal heads originally created by European Jesuits in the 18th century for the imperial gardens of Qing-dynasty Emperor Qianlong. 

In 2009, these 18th-century bronze zodiac heads made headlines when two of them—the rat and the rabbit—surfaced as part of the late Yves Saint Laurent’s art collection that had come under the hammer at Christie’s in Paris. China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement that the two sculptures should be returned to China, and later attempted to block the sale. Christie’s and Pierre Berge, the former companion and longtime business partner of Saint Laurent, refused to withdraw the lots. The sale reached notoriety when Cai Mingchao, a Chinese national, bid USD 40 million for the heads, but then later reneged on the purchase claiming it was a form of political protest and a “patriotic act.” Berge has since decided to keep the heads in his own possession.

Given the complex history and controversy surrounding the sculptures, it is no surprise that Ai, an internationally recognized artist-activist, revered for his conceptual artwork that is often infused with history and politics, chose to recreate the heads. Ai’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads first debuted last year at the São Paulo Biennial, but today the New York art world gathered together on a rainy, spring day to hear Bloomberg recognize what he described as a “bittersweet moment” that this unveiling in New York of Ai’s zodiac heads was. 

“Artists risk everything to create. They risk failure. They risk rejection. They risk public criticism. But artists, like Ai, who come from places that do not value and protect free speech, risk even more than that. His willingness to take those risks, and face the consequences, speaks not only to his courage, but also to the indomitable desire for freedom that is inside every human being,” Bloomberg said in a declaration of the salience of Ai’s work.

With the artist unable to attend the event, Bloomberg invited 12 art world figures to read some of Ai’s past statements on his behalf: artists Tony Bechara, Julian Schnabel, Shirin Neshat and Brice Marden; dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones; poet Yusef Komunyakaa; Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs Kate Levin; Museum of Modern Art president Agnes Gund; Public Art Fund president Susan Freedman; Asia Society’s museum director Melissa Chiu; Queens Museum of Art director Tom Finkelpearl; and the Guggenheim’s senior curator for Asian Art, Alexandra Munroe, who concluded with the following quote: “Without freedom of speech, there is no modern world, just a barbaric one.”

Ai Weiwei, who has been openly outspoken of social injustices in China, has been under government arrest since April 3 for alleged “economic crimes.”

The 800-pound bronze sculptures have been made in an edition of six, and another set will make their London debut at Somerset House on May 12.

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