Ai Weiwei’s world-famous bronze creatures gaze over National Elk Refuge.
When you think “wildlife” you don’t envision pigs, roosters and rats—and certainly not dragons.
But those creatures are featured this summer at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, where a current exhibit is being hailed as a big move to broaden the museum’s offerings and add to its list of distinguished artists.
The work of Ai Weiwei—whose prominence as a sculptor, installation artist, architect, photographer and filmmaker is equaled by his notorious run-ins with China’s Communist regime—will be on the museum’s Sculpture Trail though October. Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is a re-creation of 18th-century art that was looted from the Garden of Perfect Brightness in Beijing. Ai depicts the 12 symbols of the Chinese zodiac—dragon, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. Ai’s heads, with stands, are 10 feet tall and weigh about 800 pounds each.
It’s not what most people expect from the wildlife art museum, but it’s in keeping with its goals, executive director James McNutt said.
“We really want to stress to people that wildlife art isn’t always what people have been seeing all their lives, it’s not all about big game and the American West,” McNutt said. “People in other parts of the world are making images of animals in other ways.”
Ultimately, McNutt said, “it is animals even though it’s the animals of astrology and the Chinese zodiac.” The pieces also demonstrate “how contemporary art can keep history alive,” he said.
Critics talking about the Zodiac Heads have focused on Ai’s frequent contrasting of past and present and his examination of value and authenticity.
Though Chinese zodiac creatures are a change for the museum, it’s not the first time it has wandered from traditional animal art, the paintings and sculpture of Carl Rungius, Bob Kuhn, John Clymer, Ernest Thompson Seton and their like.
After all, no one expected Andy Warhol’s work would hang at the museum when it first opened, McNutt said.
But, he noted, “one of things we’ve been seeing quite a bit is that our audience is changing, and we’re showing other artists’ depictions of wildlife.
“Our point is all about the significance and the power of the art, and how the art changes people’s perceptions,” McNutt said. “And something like Ai Weiwei’s work fits well with that theme.”
The smaller originals of the Zodiac Heads have an exotic history. They were designed by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Milanese sculptor who worked in the court of Ching Dynasty Emperor Kangxi. They decorated a garden fountain until they were pillaged by French and British troops in 1860, during the Second Opium War. Only seven of the 12 are known to survive, and five of those have found their way back to China. The other two belonged to Yves St. Laurent and turned up at an auction in 2009 after his death.
When the Chinese government protested that sale, claiming the heads were stolen cultural property, Ai argued that while the heads were rooted in Chinese custom and style they were created by an Italian, drawing attention to the intricate and confusing interplay of art, culture and government.
Ai created six large editions of his heads in bronze, and six smaller gold-plated editions that are about 2 feet tall. The larger models have toured the world, appearing in New York, Taipei, London, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Toronto and other cities.
Jackson is the smallest community that has hosted the heads, but the National Museum of Wildlife Art has some special features to offer. First is that this is the first showing in a natural setting. The Sculpture Walk display places the Zodiac Heads on a butte overlooking the National Elk Refuge.
Starting July 2, the display will feature specially commissioned music by Susie Ibarra, whose composition incorporates traditional Chinese music and the sounds of the animals portrayed.
Over the summer the museum will link its open studio activities to the exhibit, including showing the film “The Making of the Zodiac Heads.”
McNutt thinks the sculptures will appeal to the Jackson audience.
“Jackson Hole is a world-class and world-connected place,” McNutt said. “It’s fitting that something like this would come to the museum.”
Ai won’t be attending. He’s been under house arrest for years, forbidden to leave the country because he speaks his mind and opposes repressive and corrupt government policies. But he is a prolific user of the Internet who has told his web followers that “life is art, art is life,” and that “the art always wins.”
“Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.” .