“The very fact that we do not know where he is or when he will be released is very disturbing,” the mayor said.
The artwork, a dozen monumental bronze heads depicting the animals of the Chinese zodiac, stood in the Pulitzer Fountain behind the podium, in a row facing Central Park. The Sheep’s mouth had poked through its bubble wrap in transit, and now there were bluish flecks of oxidation there.
A matching set is supposed to go on display in London on May 12, and Berlin is hosting a show of Ai’s work involving dead trees; in all, this month Ai’s art should be visible in about a half-dozen cities around the globe. This week marked the end of his installation at the Tate Modern in London, a sea of 100 million handmade porcelain replicas of sunflower seeds.
The unimaginable scale of the labor that went into the seed project told one story about modern China. The fact that the Tate decided to keep the public from trampling through the seeds, as planned, for fear of raising harmful dust clouds, ended up telling another story about modern China.
The bronze heads, likewise, have picked up layers of significance. They are oversize versions — 10 feet tall on their pedestals and 800 pounds — of the collection of bronze zodiac-animal heads looted by French and British troops from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace in 1860, during the Second Opium War. Those originals, scattered around the globe, have become a symbol of China’s humiliation and powerlessness before the West. Reclaiming them, whenever one comes up for auction, is a Chinese nationalist project.
And now they are standing, a full set, just outside the Plaza Hotel. Ai has filled in the gaps created by the five missing originals with more expressive and elaborate treatments: an exuberantly spiny Dragon, a Rooster with a gnarled and angry-looking comb. All that’s missing this time around is the artist — a humiliation inflicted by China on itself.
Ai’s detention has been a shock in a way that the disappearances of Chinese rights activists and lawyers — an ever-growing list — has not. Jailing a reformer is one thing; jailing a famous artist is another.
So, in mid-April, in a semi-flash protest pulled together on Facebook, artists turned up and sat on chairs (a tribute to an Ai installation of 1,001 antique Chinese chairs in Germany) across from the Chinese consulate in New York and at China’s embassies and consulates around the world. By the West Side Highway, there were wicker chairs and folding camp chairs and a milk crate labeled “chair.”