Ai Weiwei's 1995 Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.

Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been jailed for months without charges, beaten, held under "city" arrest in Beijing, and smeared in nationalist publications. Yet he's "still waiting to be silenced," says the New York Times, as a new exhibit at the Portland Art Museum makes clear.

This Saturday brings Ai’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold (2010) to town; it's a history- and irony-soaked look at what has become Ai’s special magician’s act—turning ancient objects into contemporary art. (Witness his intentional destruction of a priceless Han Dynasty urn in 1995.)

The exhibition features twelve gilded sculptures of traditional Chinese zodiac animals, reproductions of sculptures that were looted by European soldiers from an imperial garden as they destroyed it in 1860; the site later became one of Beijing's most popular ruins. In 2009 the zodiac sculptures reappeared on the Christie’s auction block with an estimated value of $10-13 million each, causing furor in China and across the world.

UC-San Diego professor of Asian Art History Kuiyi Shen—a leading Ai Weiwei expert who'll lecture here next month—tells Portland Monthly that Ai’s zodiac sculptures comment on the Chinese government’s perhaps-opportunistic outrage at the auction.

From Zodiac Heads: larger, bronze replicas of the gilded heads on display this summer at Portland Art Museum.

Shen points out a few incovenient facts about these "treasures of Chinese traditional culture": they were originally designed by European Jesuits, not Chinese artists; that an imperial garden open only to elites is hardly in line with Communist values; and that making the art market a proving ground for patriotism is just plain odd. 

“The Chinese media and government’s campaign to bring the original sculptures back to China by purchasing them, as some kind of symbol of a patriotic act, is quite ironic and funny,” Shen says. 

The original zodiac heads were eventually purchased by Chinese buyers and returned to China; Ai sold twelve of his gilded heads for $4.3 million earlier this year. But at PAM this summer, you can see the literal embodiment of this cauldron of cultural confusion—gilded, repurposed, and looking right at you.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold (2010), May 23–Sept 13, Portland Art Museum
* Kuiyi Shen will lecture in conjunction with the exhibit on June 28

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