The Dragon Roars

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei stages beautiful, challenging show at Tucson Museum of Art

The dragon is the fiercest and most fanciful of all the zodiac animals crafted by famed Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

Four big threatening fangs jut out of the dragon's wide-open mouth, and its nostrils flare. Golden flames shoot out from the top of its head and the jaw. Horns dart back between the tongues of fire, and the eyes glare menacingly beneath flaming eyebrows.

Now on view at the Tucson Museum of Art, it's a work of beauty, painstakingly crafted in bronze and lovingly covered with a shimmering patina of gold. Yet it's not entirely authentic, which is one of Ai Weiwei's points.

The dragon and the 11 other animal heads in Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, are a re-creation of a famous set of Chinese zodiac sculptures. The Chinese conceive of time in a repeating cycle of 12 years, each represented by one of the 12 zodiac animals. (The Year of the Dragon, which last occurred in 2012, yields people who are energetic, warm-hearted, charismatic and egotistical, according to museum exhibition notes.)

The original sculptures that inspired Ai Weiwei were part of an elaborate 18th-century water clock in the gardens of a country retreat belonging to a Qianlong, a Qing dynasty emperor. In the 19th century, marauding British soldiers destroyed the palace and its gardens, and stole its contents.

By 2009, when Ai Weiwei got to work making re-creating the animal heads, the dragon and four of the other original zodiac animals had long since disappeared. So, Ai Weiwei had to improvise.

Without any existing image of the original dragon, Weiwei consulted other representations of dragons in China's past, some from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and others from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The dragon he ended up making is part imagination, part historical reconstruction.

He had to do the same with the missing ram, rooster, dog and snake, devising plausible re-creations. All five of these re-imagined works stand as equals in a glittering half-circle at the museum alongside the animals that are faithful replicas of the still-existing originals: the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the horse, the sheep, the monkey and the pig.

Gleaming in the light, the large golden heads (some up to 3 feet tall) are all beautifully detailed. The rat's fur is etched into the bronze, the tiger's stripes have gone 3-D, the snake's markings are rendered by fractures in the metal. There's nothing in the display that distinguishes Ai Weiwei's educated guesses from his authenticated re-creations.

That's on purpose. The internationally known artist has made a career of challenging received ideas about the nature of art and appropriation and probing our reverence for cultural treasures.

Born in China in 1957, Ai Weiwei grew up in "internal exile," after his father, Ai Qing—a renowned poet—was banished by the Mao Zedong government on charges of being a rightist. After Mao died and the Cultural Revolution ended, the family returned to Beijing, where Ai Weiwei began studying art and film and joining avant-garde groups.

In 1981, he moved to New York, spending more than a decade in the heady contemporary art scene. Inspired by the irreverent ready-mades of Duchamp and Warhol's focus on commercial objects, Ai Weiwei began delving into media of all kinds. Nearly all his works, from sculpture and installation to architecture and filmmaking, were steeped in social criticism

Back in China, he won a measure of fame—and infamy—for "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn," a performance piece recorded in photos. In the pictures, he stands expressionless as he drops the revered antique ceramic to the floor, where it shatters into a thousand shards. Intending to create outrage, Ai Weiwei also had another motive: highlighting the routine destruction of cultural patrimony by commercial interests, in China and in other nations around the world.

The Zodiac heads fit right into his cultural critiques. The original animal sculptures began to be sold at auction in the West, but the first sales, in the 1980s, attracted little attention. By the 2000s, though, the Chinese were vehemently protesting the transactions, citing the loss of their national treasures. A Chinese corporation brought some the heads back home after paying exorbitant prices, and the Chinese government began demanding the return of other looted Chinese objects.

To Ai Weiwei, the story was more complicated than the easy nationalist narrative made it seem. The original waterworks sculptures, he noted, were designed by an Italian artisan and crafted by French workers. Which nation's heritage do they represent? Art, he has said, is "always taken by the people who have power," whether it's looted by European forces bent on decimating China or by a Communist regime determined to squelch a poet. Each of his animal heads, beautiful as they are, are mute testaments to the savagery of history.

Though Ai Weiwei's outspokenness has landed him in trouble with the current Chinese government—in 2011, he was arrested and detained for three months, and then prevented from leaving China for four years—the artist does not confine his criticisms to his native land.

Shortly after he left China in 2015, he went to the Greek island of Lesbos, where thousands of desperate Syrians have sailed in a perilous journey to seek refuge in Europe. Ai Weiwei has been documenting their tragedy in videos and photos. He also collected some 14,000 life vests discarded by the refugees on the beaches, and brought them into the heart of Europe.

They now hang at the entrance of the Konzerthaus, a grand concert hall in Berlin, symbol of the glories of western culture. Wrapped around classical-style pillars, the orange life jackets, dirtied and damaged on their sea voyage, stand as a stinging rebuke to the uncaring West.

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