Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads

To celebrate YSP's 40th anniversary, we welcomed Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads (2010) to the Park.

Since May 2011 this work has been on a worldwide tour through Europe, Asia and the USA. The sculpture has travelled enormous distances and been welcomed in locations worldwide. This movement is a freedom and liberty that is not available to many people.

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and activist who has been a vocal critic of China’s record on democracy and human rights. In 2011 he was arrested for ‘economic crimes’ and banned from leaving China. In 2015, Ai was awarded the Ambassador of Conscience Award by Amnesty International.

Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads represents the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. The heads are based on a fountain-clock from Yuanming Yuan, the imperial summer palace in Beijing. The original statues would spout water from their mouths to tell the time.

Visitor looking up at Ai Wei Wei, Zodiac Heads detail 2010 Courtesy the artist and YSP at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Yuanming Yuan was destroyed in 1860 by British and French soldiers. The bronze heads were removed along with many other treasures. Seven of the original heads have returned to China – the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, monkey and pig. The other five – the dragon, snake, goat, rooster and dog – are still missing. By reimagining the sculptures, Ai Weiwei asks us to question where the Zodiac Heads belong. The sculpture prompts us to consider ownership, authenticity, fakes and copies.

Cast in bronze and standing three metres high, the sculptures each weigh 363kg. The Zodiac Heads underwent conservation treatment from December 2020 to July 2021. They are now back on display in a new position in the Lower Park at YSP.