Princeton’s Zodiac Sculptures Welcome Lunar Year of the Tiger | Echo of Princeton






Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” was originally installed around the fountain outside the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, but has been moved to an open space along University Place , with the McCarter Theater visible in the background here.




The dozen 10-foot-tall bronze animal figures that make up “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” stare at those passing by the Princeton University campus near the McCarter Theater and Lewis Art Complex.

While the characters with their 800-pound heads and 200-pound bases seem like members of a fixed flank of a fantasy army, they’re there to score less tangible things.

These are the shapes that announce the arrival of spring with the Chinese New Year, which begins on February 1 and ends on February 15.

Created – or more accurately recreated – by Ai Weiwei, today’s most famous Chinese artist and political dissident, the statues arrived on the Princeton University campus in August 2012 and were first installed around the fountain outside the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

They were part of a plan to bring the artist to Princeton University, where he would talk about his art and his struggles with the repressive Chinese government.

However, Ai was detained in China and was unable to surrender. And while he eventually became free to leave China and now lives in Portugal, his statues remain and provide an opportunity to reflect on the Chinese calendar and the history of the characters.

As we know, the Chinese zodiac is represented by 12 animals that each year give its name: rat, pig, horse, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, ram, rooster, dog, ox and monkey. Each animal would mark the personality of the individual born in the year of a specific animal, with some years being more auspicious than others. This year is dedicated to the Tiger, image of strength and courage,

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

Instead of an ever-changing future, the Asian system involves celestial and terrestrial patterns that change, mix, and then repeat themselves every 60 years. Each year of this cycle contains various energies or forces that affect life and are recorded with animal names.

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

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

While the animals are familiar and mostly domestic, the inclusion of the dragon may come as a surprise to Westerners. Asian culture, however, sees the creature as a representation of the vital, regenerative force of life.

The story of how the zodiac animals at Princeton were shaped is full of surprises.






Zodiac tiger.JPG

The Year of the Tiger begins on February 1. Here, the sculpture of the tiger in Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” stands against the backdrop of Spelman Halls,

with the execution by Carl Nesjar of “Tête de femme” by Pablo Picasso.


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

Castiglione was born in Milan in 1688 and studied art before joining the religious order which sent him to China in 1715. The Jesuit brother eventually came to Beijing, where the emperor was impressed by the talents of abroad and invited him to serve as Imperial Artist. Castiglione agreed, 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 blended Asian and European designs. The artist, along with fellow Jesuit and architect Michel Benoit, created a water clock that featured the 12 heads that sprang from the water to denote different times of the day.

While Asian and European historians have called the Zodiac Fountain Garden one of the most beautiful places in the world, a twist of fate has created a new chapter in history.

In 1860, European forces, determined to profit from the Chinese trade, especially in 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 marble friezes from Greece) invaded the capital and looted the palaces. Zodiac heads were seized and returned to Europe as loot.

The looting of the Summer Palace has been a sore point in the sometimes strained relationship between the West and China, which considers the heads part of their national heritage.

Although seven of those original heads have been returned to their countries of origin in the past 162 years, five are still missing.

In this context 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 was imprisoned during China’s anti-rightist movement in 1958. In his late teens and early twenties, Ai Weiwei attended the Academy of Beijing film and created an avant-garde artistic group. After following a girlfriend to Philadelphia in 1981, Ai went to New York and studied at Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League. His western artistic influences were dada, conceptual art, Warhol and Jasper Johns.

Ai returned to China in 1993 to care for his sick father. With China’s attempt to remake itself through capitalist-flavoured initiatives and become a global cultural leader, Ai was able to establish himself as an artist, blending traditions.

One of his rising star moments was in 2008 when he participated in the architectural design of the internationally acclaimed Beijing Olympic Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest.

However, it was also during this time that he became an increasingly vocal critic of the Chinese government, particularly after the Sichuan earthquake, also in 2008. This natural disaster was amplified by the deaths of thousands of children who needlessly perished in the collapse. poorly constructed schools. These construction flaws have been linked to poor government oversight and corruption.

When Ai continued to criticize the communist government and published the names of schools and 5,000 dead or missing children on a blog he had maintained since 2006, his run-ins with the Chinese government escalated.

The following years saw an increase in harassment, physical intimidation, a leveling of his studios, accusations of tax evasion and lawsuits.

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

Then there was the 2010 Tate installation which involved hundreds of Chinese workers who used a combination of traditional craftsmanship and mass production to create a million hand-painted, hand-painted sunflower seed sculptures. by hand.

This was followed by 2010’s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads”, which toured internationally and appeared in major museums and venues, such as Princeton.

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

Although the zodiac may appear to be a quaint reproduction of ancient figures that blend two traditions, it also provides an opportunity for philosophical reflection on the two cultures. Western tradition created the animal for an ideal landscape that was ultimately destroyed by members of that same tradition, and the figures represent a Chinese cosmology of harmony that depends on the subjugation of the individual by that culture.

Yet there is another controversial story related to the Princeton sculptures. 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 exact replica of the original set, some art commentators say it is a “fake” recreation.

Ai, however, approaches the issue as if anticipating criticism. “My work is always about right or wrong, authenticity and value, and how value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings,” he says.

The Princeton Heads, one of many sets in the United States, also have a history. They belong to an anonymous alumnus of the university who lent them to the university. The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs funded the installation and involved the Princeton University Art Museum to provide oversight and expertise. And they involved New York-based Larry Warsh, who, in addition to being a former member of the Asia Society’s Contemporary Arts Council and the China Institute’s Contemporary Arts Committee, has collaborated with Ai on several projects, including the creation of the heads of the zodiac and their 2010 exhibition in New York.

And as this story continues to unfold like the celestial seasons, there is something in the heads that is consistent and fundamental. As Ai says, “It’s work that everyone can relate to, including children and people who aren’t in the art world.”

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