Chinese traditional artists knew to imitate the works of their predecessors in a process that incompetent Westerners denounced as fake and plagiarism. Ai recovers ancient themes with his humor that integrates the American Pop Art and Mickey Mouse.
In 2010, the theme of the twelve animals from the zodiac fountain of the imperial palace appeals to him both because it directly concerns the relations between China and the West and by the ambiguity of its social significance. This zodiac had been an issue with France in the previous year when two elements in the Saint-Laurent - Bergé collection were offered at auction.
Ai carved the figures of the twelve heads, including the five that have not resurfaced after the sack of the palace of the Qing. He enhances the sculpture by detailing hair or feather in a texture unrelated to the original Chinese art.
The double title of this set, Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, adds to the duality of the political message, modern and ancient, international and Chinese, symbolic and esoteric. It is perhaps also an allusion to the political fable in which Orwell gave the power to the animals.
In this zodiac, Ai does not only view the spoliation. He considers the difference between the imperial fountain offered to the pleasure of a restricted court and his own art that is exhibited to the general public during international tours.
The bronzes were made in two sizes. The smaller version is gold plated. It was edited in eight copies plus four artist's proofs. No. 7/8 was sold for £ 2.9 million including premium by Phillips on 12 February 2015.
The elements of the monumental version, not golden, vary around 3 meters high, or more when including the horns of the dragon and the crest of the rooster. It was edited in six copies plus two artist's proofs. The number 1/6 is estimated £ 3M for sale by Phillips in London on June 29, lot 23.