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Today’s rain may have put a damper on the unveiling of Ai Weiwei‘s “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” (2009) at the Pulitzer Fountain, located at Central Park South and Fifth Avenue, but what certainly cast a pall over the event was the artist’s own absence. After over a month since his arrest by the Chinese government, we still haven’t heard from the dissident artist. The opening of “Zodiac Heads” was met with widespread support for Ai’s plight and for his politically contentious work, both from Mayor Bloomberg and the city’s influential arts community.
This is the first time that public art has been installed at the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel, and Ai’s work is particularly well-suited to the space. The Zodiac heads range around the wide fountain pool in a single curved line; from the front, a confrontational group, up close, masterpieces of expressive sculpture. Each head belongs to a different animal in the Chinese Zodiac, and each is imbued with its own distinctive personality. What is most imposing about these sculptures is their massive quality; each weighs up to half a ton. But it’s the animals’ expressions that really drive the heavy, surreal feeling of the works home. Blank eyes stare out at viewers, mouths and snouts twist into manic grins.
After a slight delay spent standing outside in the rain, the unveiling began in earnest with the arrival of Mayor Bloomberg. In an introductory speech that was appreciative of both the Zodiac heads and the artist who created them, Bloomberg spoke out against Ai’s continued detention and the restriction of free speech in China:
Artists risk everything to create. They risk failure. They risk rejection. They risk public criticism. But artists like Ai Weiwei, who come from places that do not value and protect free speech, risk even more than that … His willingness to take those risks, and face the consequences, speaks not only to his courage, but also to the indomitable desire for freedom that is inside every human being.
As Ai spent over a decade living in New York and has been a constant visitor ever since, Bloomberg went to lengths to claim Ai as one of the city’s own. After a speech from Larry Warsh, the founder of AW Asia, who helped produce the exhibition, Bloomberg introduced a group of 12 significant New York City cultural figures, including track-suited artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, Iranian artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat (and her ever-present eye shadow), choreographer Bill T. Jones and Agnes Gund, the Museum of Modern Art’s president emerita.
In a striking display of support and admiration, each one read a short quote from Ai Weiwei’s writing. One quote, read by Bill T. Jones, was particularly striking:
Once you perceive a thing straightforwardly, with a clear mind, you discover that your resources are inexhaustible. This is because your heart is connected, and in harmony, with the order of the universe.
For more background on the Zodiac heads, their history and their continuing political significance, see my earlier essay on the sculptures and the exhibition’s website.
Check out the unveiling in a photo essay below.
Gothamist has the full text of Bloomberg’s speech here.