Ai Weiwei

SARAH HADDOW-DU PRE has some thoughts about place and Ai
Cockerel from Ai Weiwei's Circle of Heads

Cockerel from Ai Weiwei's 'Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads' (2011)


In New York, of course, they were by the Pulitzer Fountain.  In Paris, in Rome – we can imagine where they might be (perhaps the Louvre, the Coliseum): Ai’s breath-taking ‘Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads’ (2011) is as much about place as any installation work he has ever created – more so, far far more so than last year’s Sunflower Seeds in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.  We all despair at his current situation, but we must look carefully to his art if we are to understand it.

To walk, however, into the late eighteenth century square of Somerset House in London is, in my view, to see the most perfect connection of place and work that London currently has.  If you can ignore the tedious play of the “dancing fountains” (a Disney-esque blight on the oppressive sternness of Chambers’ design), then the darkened bronze stands out bleakly against the whitened stone.  Others, notably the New York Times (and a short but sensitive analysis by Malcolm Moore in the London Telegraph) deal with the Chinese significance and the historical positioning of the works.

But it is as to the place that the work must be focussed.  Ai Weiwei himself took a view when discussing the case with the London curators, and there is a telling quotation on their website: “I want my work to be accessible to everyone. As Yuanming Yuan was being built, Somerset House was being constructed and for me this means that the Courtyard is the perfect setting for Circle of Animals.”  It could not be more correct – the savagery of English life, its hunting, shooting and fishing mentality – a Rake’s Progress, John Soane-ian, Fielding-esque kind of world – is that evoked by the grandeur of the setting.  Here, more than they could anywhere in the world – the heads combine kinetic brutality with sport and silence.  They are, in fact, close relatives of stuffed and hunted heads – taxidermised and glassy-eyed like those you might on the walls of a Bavarian schloss or a squire’s snug.  Indeed, it can be no accident that Weiwei (who so clearly got the idea of place) should put them so close to Landseer’s Lion’s at the base of Nelson’s column.  They are about power – power reduced by place, power in metal, power of nature.  So appropriate, so true and so timely.  Go, go now and see them.


Until 26 June in the Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court at Somerset House, London, between 07.30-23.00.  Admission Free.

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