The dozen 10-foot-tall bronze animal figures that make up “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” stare straight at the Fountain of Freedom beside the Woodrow Wilson School on the Princeton University campus. While the figures with their 800-pound heads and 200-pound bases seem members of a fixed flank of some fantastic army, they are there to mark things less tangible.

They are the shapes that announce the coming of spring with the Chinese New Year, which began on February 10 and concludes this Sunday, February 24.

Created — or more accurately recreated — by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, today’s most famous Chinese artist and political dissenter, the statues came to the Princeton University campus in August, 2012.

They were, in part, an announcement of the artist’s planned arrival at Princeton University, where he would speak about his art and his struggles with the repressive Chinese government.

While that government’s repression stopped Ai’s October visit, he seems to have arrived nonetheless through his art, and his statues tell stories about the Chinese calendar, the history of the figures, and how the artist became a ghostly presence in our midst.

As is commonly known, the Chinese zodiac is represented by 12 animals that give each year its name: rat, pig, horse, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, ram, roster, dog, ox, and monkey. Each animal allegedly marks the personality of the individual born during a specific animal’s year, with some years being more propitious than others.

The series of years has its roots in antiquity and is based on both lunar and solar calculations.

Instead of a future forever moving forward, the Asian system involves celestial and terrestrial patterns that shift, mix, and then repeat every 60 years. Each year in this cycle contains various energies or forces that affect life and are recorded with the animal names.

Since more than the Chinese people use this time calculation, the change of year is more appropriately called the Lunar New Year (or even the Spring Festival), which falls between the December solstice and the March equinox.

The connection to the year and the animal is a fanciful story. When the Buddha requested that animals honor him, only the 12 mentioned creatures stepped forward. To recognize them, the Buddha gave each animal a year that contains energy similar to that of the animal.

While the animals are familiar and mainly domestic, the inclusion of the dragon may surprise Westerners. Asian culture, however, sees the creature as a representation of the vital and regenerative force of life. Being born during the Year of the Dragon is equivalent to being born under a lucky star.

The story of how the zodiac animals in Princeton were fashioned is one filled with surprises.

Ai’s figures are both replicas and controversial reinterpretations of heads created for the 18th-century Chinese emperor Qianlong. His interest in exotic art inspired him to have the Chinese zodiac interpreted by a Jesuit Italian artist, Giuseppe Castiglione.

Castiglione was born in Milan in 1688 and studied art before joining the religious order that sent him to China in 1715. The Jesuit brother eventually came to Beijing, where the emperor was impressed with the foreigner’s talents and invited him to serve as an imperial artist. Castiglione accepted, adopted a Chinese name, and served four rulers. He died in 1766.

One of Castiglione’s court projects was the creation of an exotic garden and summer palace that mixed Asian and European designs. The artist, along with fellow Jesuit and architect Michel Benoit, created a water clock that featured the 12 heads that spouted water to designate different times of the day.

While Asian and European historians called the zodiac fountain garden one of the most beautiful places in the world, a twist of fate created a new chapter of the story.

In 1860 European forces determined to benefit from Chinese trade, including opium, had launched the Second Opium War. French and English forces under the command of Lord Elgin (from the same family that removed the famous marbles friezes from Greece) invaded the capital city and plundered the palaces. The zodiac heads were seized and sent back to Europe as booty.

The plunder of the Summer Palace has been a sore point in the sometimes tense relationship between the West and China, which sees the heads as part of their national heritage.

Though five of those original heads were returned to their homeland over the past 153 years, five remain missing. Two others — the rabbit and rat heads owned by the late fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent — became a fresh point of contention in late 2008 and early 2009.

The two authentic heads had been offered to China by Saint-Laurent’s companion, Pierre Berge, with the stipulation that the Chinese government would recognize human rights and give Tibet autonomy.

When the Chinese government balked at the offer, the heads were auctioned by Christie’s, where they were purchased by a representative of China’s National Treasures Fund for $19 million. However, payment was withheld, keeping the controversy simmering and the heads in political limbo.

Against this backdrop of ancient, distant, and recent history are the stories involving Ai Weiwei.

The artist was born in China in 1957 to a prominent poet, who became imprisoned during China’s Anti-Rightist Movement in 1958. In his late teens and early 20s, Ai Weiwei attended the Beijing Film Academy and started an avant garde arts group. After following a girlfriend to Philadelphia in 1981, Ai went to New York City and studied at Parsons School of Design and the Arts Student League. His Western art influences were dada, conceptual art, Warhol, and Jasper Johns.

Ai returned to China in 1993 to attend to his ailing father. With China’s attempt to remake itself through capitalist-flavored initiatives and become a world cultural leader, Ai was able to establish himself as an artist, mixing traditions.

One of his rising star moments was in 2008 through his participation in the architectural design for internationally known Olympic stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest.

However, it was also at this time that he became a more and more outspoken critic of the Chinese government, especially after the Sichuan earthquake, also in 2008. That natural disaster was amplified by the deaths of thousands of children who needlessly perished in the collapse of poorly constructed schools. Those construction faults have been connected to poor government oversight and corruption.

When Ai continued to criticize the communist government and posted the names of the schools and the 5,000 dead or missing children on a blog that he had kept since 2006, his troubles with the Chinese government intensified.

The next few years saw increased harassment, physical intimidation, a leveling of his studios, accusations of tax evasion, and trials.

His response was a series of publicly executed art projects, including the 2008 German installation of thousands of student backpacks that commemorated the Chinese students who perished in the Sichuan earthquake.

Then there was 2010 Tate installation that involved hundreds of Chinese workers who used a combination of traditional craft making and mass production to create a million handmade and hand painted sunflower seed sculptures. That was followed by the 2010 “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” which has touring internationally and appearing at prominent museums and locations, such as Princeton.

There are also major exhibitions of Ai’s work, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.’s “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” (a title used by American painter Jasper Jones for a painting). That exhibition, which also includes a set of zodiac heads, closes this Sunday, February 24, and comes to the Brooklyn Museum in April, 2014.

Add to all of the above Ai’s well known use of social media to create conceptual and digital art, including his recent “Gangnam Style” dance (an exuberant statement of defiance) and his self-launched live video surveillance that replicates the surveillance launched on him by the Chinese government (closed by Chinese authorities after five million viewers followed). Ai says he uses this ongoing conflict with the Chinese authorities as a performance art piece.

A crucial phase of this performance occurred late this past summer. The artist was deemed guilty of tax evasion, fined millions of dollars, and was released with the stipulation that he remain in a type of house arrest in his Beijing home (with his wife, artist Lu Qing) for one year. That restriction prevented him from coming to Princeton.

He was also ordered to refrain from using Twitter and Facebook. However, he — or someone using his sites — appears to make occasional announcements and communicates with media, though he did not respond to questions for this article.

In the zodiac figures, Ai mixes artistic ideas, history, personal experience, and technical skills that create a presence and controversy.

While the zodiac may seem like quaint reproductions of ancient figures that blend two traditions, they also provide an opportunity for philosophical reflection about the two cultures. Western tradition created the animal for an ideal landscape that was eventually destroyed by members of that same tradition, and the figures represent a Chinese cosmology of harmony that depends on that culture’s subjugation of the individual.

Yet there is another controversial story connected to the sculptures in Princeton. Since several of the original zodiac heads are missing, Ai created or imagined five new ones (dragon, snake, dog, sheep, and rooster). Since the set is not an accurate replica of the original set, some art commentators say it is a “fake” recreation.

Ai, however, addresses the issue as if expecting the criticism. “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity and value, and how value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings,” he says. However, since the zodiac sculptures are composed of animal heads, he says, “it’s a work that everyone can understand, including children and people who are not in the art world.”

This mixture of replicating and mass producing art has also stirred debate among art critics about Ai’s overall artistry. In a recent New Republic article subtitled: “Ai Weiwei: Wonderful Dissident, Terrible Artist,” art critic Jed Perl says, “The trouble with most critiques of political art is that they pay too much attention to the politics. This is not to say that an artist’s politics do not matter; not at all. But the great challenge today, at least for those who find themselves in a museum wanting to take full advantage of what an art museum has to offer, is how deeply the artist is exploring the means that are available. Therein lies artistic freedom.”

On the other hand New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl writes, “Any verdict on (Ai’s) art will be incidental to the fateful outcome of his life. But, since a judgment is in order, here’s mine: Ai Weiwei, the artist, is good enough.”

Ai Weiwei joins this debate on his art and art in general, “I think very often we see art as artwork or art objects but [do not] emphasize the mind of the people or the movement behind it. I think that can very much lead to misunderstanding and it can be misdirected to the commercial side of art. Today we see changes at all levels, politics and economics and culture. We can see a new definition and new possibilities to give a new look to art and a new understanding of why we need art in today’s society.”

The arrival of the sets of traveling heads in the United States (and there are currently several sets of heads in various locations across the country and the globe) allows the mute figures to be a universal presence that stimulates reflection across boundaries and languages. In a sense, they are a primitive use of a mass media.

Their arrival in Princeton also has a story. The works are owned by an anonymous university alumnus who loaned them to the university. The set came directly from the artist’s studio in China to Princeton. The Woodrow Wilson School funded the installation and involved the Princeton University Art Museum to provide oversight and expertise.

While the figures were to remain through this coming August, their presence has been extended to August, 2014. Their next stop is unknown at this time.

Thanks to the Princeton University Press, there is another Ai presence in Princeton: “Weiwei-isms,” based on the Ai’s newspaper articles, Twitter posts, media interviews, and other sources, published in January, 2012.

The 130-page book — appearing as a black-covered version of Chairman Mao’s infamous Red Book of aphorisms — was edited by Larry Warsh, who, in addition to being a former member of the Contemporary Arts Council of the Asia Society and the Contemporary Arts Committee of the China Institute, collaborated with Ai on a variety of projects, including the creation of the zodiac heads and their 2010 exhibition in New York City.

The book’s appearance echoes their collaboration and suggests another chapter in the ongoing story. “It’s no coincidence that ‘Weiwei-isms’ is being published by Princeton University Press,” Warsh writes in the introduction. “Like the Princeton exhibition, the book will serve the efforts to bring Ai Weiwei to audiences beyond the art world, particularly in colleges and universities. This effort has taken on added significance as the scope of Ai Weiwei’s creative expression, and of the issues he addresses, has expanded.”

Elisabeth Donahue, associate dean for public and external affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, says that Princeton University Press was part of the overall planning to create a presence for Ai Weiwei, as were the Woodrow Wilson School and the university museum.

“Weiwei-isms” is divided into six sections or, as Warsh calls them, themes: freedom of expression; art and activism; government, power, and making moral choices; the digital world; history and the future; and personal reflection.

With sayings that suggest the influence of Andy Warhol’s aphorisms or sound bites, Ai is best when making statements regarding today’s evolving communication technologies. For example, “The Internet is uncontrollable. And if the Internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It’s a simple as that.” Historic precedent shows how emerging technologies’ ability to record fact over propaganda have challenged repressive regimes and caused social changes, as with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring.

Yet other statements — “If Shakespeare were alive today, he might be writing on Twitter” — indicate a social and artistic freedom to make routine and empty announcements that can fuel his detractors.

Warsh argues that the artist’s use of Twitter and Facebook are all part of his art. “Ai’s political stance, his life, his art, and his digital communications mesh into a continuous whole. ‘Everything is art,’ he has written. ‘Everything is politics.’”

Another chapter of Ai’s story will be told in Princeton this April when the Second Chance Cinema presents the film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” as its last feature. Filmmaker Alison Klayman’s debut feature documentary is touted as “the inside story of a dissident for the digital age who inspires global audiences and blurs boundaries of art and politics.”

Second Chance Cinema coordinator William Lockwood says that the filmmaker aims to show the power of art in the face of tyranny and “strikes the right balance between the artist’s public causes and his personal life.” The film is scheduled for Monday, April 29, as part of Princeton Adult School’s annual winter-spring movie course at the Friend Center Auditorium on the university campus.

Obviously, as the Lunar Calendar moves us into a new year, Ai Weiwei’s story is still being told. His struggle with the Chinese authorities is the stuff of the future.

So is his visit to the area. Since Ai is still not able to travel to the United States, his plans to visit Princeton remain uncertain. “We hope to host him in the future should he be able to travel to the United States,” says Donahue.

But it may not matter. Even though he is physically in China, Ai Weiwei has been a presence in Princeton, stimulating thought and providing stories.

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