When you step into Ai Weiwei’s golden zodiac, you find beauty and perfection. But the sculptures also conceal a strong message about freedom.

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, 2010. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, long term loan from The Frahm Collection

The story behind Ai Weiwei's Zodiac Heads

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads displays 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. The animals are part of the Chinese way of life as star signs in their calendar.

Looting of the emperor’s palace

In the 1700’s 12 animal heads were made in bronze for the emperor’s palace Yuanming Yuan in Beijing. The heads decorated a large fountain in the palace, and had been drawn in a European style by an Italian Jesuit monk. The French and British armies looted the palace in 1860. The heads were spread far and wide. The event became part of what the Chinese referred to as “the century of humiliation”.

From oblivion to national treasure

China never looked for the heads. But as part of a number of scandalous European auction sales of the seven heads that survived, the Chinese state suddenly ascribed a major national symbolic value to them. Today the heads are all back in China, at the Poly Art Museum in Beijing.


Ai Wewei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, 2010. ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, long term loan from the Frahm Collection.

A message about freedom

Ai Weiwei has recreated the zodiac to incite a debate about Chinese self-opinion. The zodiac is available in two versions: A gold-plated bronze, which can be seen at ARKEN, and a metre-tall size, which is displayed outside in major cities around the world. As the Chinese government tries to retain its cultural heritage, which was actually created in an exchange between Eastern and Western culture, Ai Weiwei sends it out into the world as a message of freedom.

About Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei works with e.g. sculpture, architecture, installations, music, photography and film. His art represents a sharp criticism of Chinese society. Since 2005 he has been an ardent activist on the Internet and social media, which has caused him major problems, including house arrest, attacks, imprisonment, a fake court case for tax evasion and surveillance.

Born in 1957 in Beijing, China.

Lives and works in Beijing.

Lived in New York, USA from 1981-93, where he briefly studied at design and art schools.

Ai Weiwei’s father was the system critical poet Ai Qing, who was sent to a labour camp with Ai Weiwei and his mother in 1958, when Ai Weiwei was just 12 months old. After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, he returned to Beijing.

He was imprisoned without trial for 81 days. His passport was seized, and it was only returned to him in July 2015.

In 2012 he made a parody on YouTube about the Korean rapper Psys’ huge hit “Gangnam Style”. The parody shows Weiwei dancing with chains on. The video was quickly blocked by the Chinese authorities.

Several documentaries have been made about Ai Weiwei, including “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (2012) by American producer Alison Klayman and “Ai Weiwei The Fake Case” (2013) by Danish producer Andreas Johnsen.


Ai Weiwei. Photo: Gao Yuan