The provocative Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has finally been released by the Chinese government after 80 days in detention with no charge. Ai Weiwei has been an outspoken challenger of Communist Party rule, both in statements and in his art, but he was uncharacteristically tight-lipped as he emerged from his long imprisonment.

His work constantly questioned traditions in China, especially accepted ideas about the possession and value of art and antiquities. He famously dipped neolithic Chinese clay vessels in bright-colored paint, and photographed himself dropping a Han Dynasty urn which smashed into pieces on the stone ground he stood on. Destroying those symbols of Chinese craft and longevity was a statement that earned him attention and notoriety.

Just as the artist disappeared, his monumental work “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” was installed at Somerset House in London. This sculpture installation addresses the problem of looted art and antiquities, referencing the Imperial Haiyantang water clock, where twelve bronze heads, each an animal of the zodiac, spouted water on the hour.

During the Second Opium War in 1860, French and British forces looted the Imperial Summer Palace and seized the bronze figures, exporting them from the country. Some have surfaced in private collections, such as the Rabbit and Rat held by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé until 2009, while others have been recovered by China and others remain missing.

The installation re-imagines the bronze heads in their formation around an active fountain, and reminds the viewer of the millions of objects around the world removed from their origin cultures by force.

Another Chinese artist whose work interacts with the history of art and material culture also has an installation in London, at the British Museum. Xu Bing created “Background Story 7” as a “dialogue” with a 1654 Chinese landscape painted on a hanging scroll by Wang Shimin.

Xu Bing’s image seems to simply copy the familiar brushstrokes of the 17th century traditional landscape in a modern medium, a large-scale light-and-shadow box. However, a surprise awaits as the viewer walks behind the work. The image is a silhouette meticulously constructed with branches, tape, paper and other refuse. It is a fascinating process and truly makes one question one’s assumptions about how art is created, and challenge one’s capacity to renew vision.


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