Ai Weiwei is a contemporary artist from China known for his political work. His collection of Chinese zodiac animal heads comes to the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson in May.

The heads tower 10 to 12 feet high and weigh more than 800 pounds each. They represent the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. But the zodiac heads in Circle of Animals, an art exhibition by famous Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei (pronounced eye-way-way), represent something more, said Adam Duncan Harris, a curator at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson.

The massive bronze sculptures artist Ai Weiwei creates weigh more than 800 pounds. (courtesy of the artist and AW Asia.

The exhibit features Ai’s reinterpretation of 12 bronze animal heads designed by two Europeans in the 18th century. The original works represented the Chinese zodiac and adorned an imperial retreat in Beijing. French and British troops pillaged the heads in 1860. According to the exhibit’s website, Ai’s work investigates looting, reparations and copies compared to original works. The exhibit has traveled the world, drawing attention not just for the impressive large-scale sculptures, but also because it’s creator, a Chinese government dissident, is not allowed to leave his country.

The show opens at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson May 9 and closes Oct. 11.

The museum is known for its high-caliber exhibits and collection of works that include pieces by renowned historical and contemporary artists. But the zodiac heads exhibition is a big deal, even for a museum used to big names.

“It’s something kind of unexpected for us,” Harris said. “In terms of internationally known contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei is clearly the biggest artist that we’ve had, the most well-known and highly regarded.”

Ai was born in Beijing, the son of acclaimed poet Ai Qing, whom the government branded a dissident in its Anti-Rightist movement of the 1950s. The family was exiled to a remote outpost of western China when Ai was still an infant. Ai was born a cultural insider and a political outsider, setting the trajectory for his future as a social activist and champion for freedom of speech.

Artist Ai Weiwei with a rooster head he created for his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads exhibition. (courtesy of the artist and AW Asia.

His art took him to New York City and garnered him international acclaim. He received the Chinese Contemporary Art Award for Life Contribution in 2008 and helped design the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics. Despite his success, and perhaps because of it, Ai found himself at odds with his government on human rights and free speech, even later denouncing the Olympic stadium saying it was a “pretend smile” from the government. His blogs are often shut down, his studio is under surveillance and he claims to have been punished for his beliefs.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads has shown internationally. Harris said he experienced it in Washington D.C. about three years ago. The massive size of the sculptures looming above him was a powerful experience, he said. The National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson is always looking for new ways to encourage people to think about how animals are depicted in art, and Ai’s Circle of Heads fits the bill nicely.

“Our mission is to investigate humanity’s relationship with nature.”

The exhibit explores a different representation of wildlife, but also how humans create meaningful systems, like the zodiac, using nature. It’s a different way people try to understand the world interpreting it with animals, he said. Ai is taking something from the past and interpreting it for contemporary viewers.

Ai Weiwei was detained and placed under house arrest for a time in 2011, and he is not allowed to leave his home country of China. (courtesy of the artist and AW Asia.

Harris said he hopes the exhibit will attract new people to the museum.

“On the other side of it, for some of our more traditional visitors, this is a great introduction to one of the world’s most amazing living artists,” he said.

The bronzes will line the museum’s sculpture trail, a three-quarter-mile outdoor venue opened in September 2012.

The exhibit will be laid out in a line, not a circle (despite the name), with the 12 creatures installed in order of their appearance in the Chinese zodiac. It will be the first non-urban display of the sculptures, Harris said.

The museum is working with composer Susie Ibarra to create a soundscape to accompany the exhibit. Jane Lavino, curator of education and exhibits at the museum, said the soundscape will begin in July and provide ambiance to encourage people to slow down and pay attention. It will include traditional Chinese instruments and animal vocalizations — you might hear the hiss of a snake at the serpent sculpture, for example.

The museum has planned other events related to the exhibit throughout the summer, including screening of a documentary on the artist, and a message from Ai to visitors about his current projects and political status in China.

A concurrent exhibit inside the museum during the summer will focus on the making of the zodiac heads.

“Any way you look at it, it’s a big exhibit,” Lavino said. “It’s a big exhibit in terms of the scale and manpower needed to bring a temporary exhibit this size here and it’s a big exhibit in terms of the fame of the artist.”

The National Museum of Wildlife Art is working with composer Susie Ibarra to create a soundscape to accompany the Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads exhibit. (courtesy of the artist and AW Asia.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, by Ai Weiwei, May 9-Oct. 11, National Museum of Wildlife Art

Auxiliary Exhibit: The Making of the Zodiac Heads & Open Studio

Inside the museum, in the Wapiti Gallery, a companion exhibit featuring video and interpretative panels describe the bronze casting process. The open studio allows people of all ages to make their own art using rubber stamps featuring zodiac signs. Instructions and materials allow people to practice the ancient tradition of Chinese paper cutting and pliable wax allows for sculpting your own zodiac creatures.

Sneak Peek: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, 11:30 a.m. to noon May 8

Museum curators will introduce the installation and a Chinese zodiac scholar will talk about the mythology of the Chinese zodiac.

Outdoor Movie Screening: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, 8:30 p.m. July 29

Watch the documentary film Ai Weiwei, which chronicles the artist’s work on a series of exhibitions as well as his escalating clashes with the Chinese government.

Mix’d Media: Celebration of Zodiac Heads, 6 to 9 p.m., July 9

The mixed media celebrations offers an interactive social event featuring activities, music, games, presentations, food and drink. Staff will lead fast-paced tours of the exhibit every half hour.

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. This is so exciting for Wyoming and for NMWA! And I can’t help but smile when I think of the elk from the nearby elk refuge and their surprise when they see that dragon. This is definitely an indication of the caliber of art museum NMWA has developed into.

    Lynn Carlson