China Lifts International Travel Ban For Zodiac Sculptor Ai Weiwei

By Linda Arntzenius

After a four-year ban that prevented him from all international travel and kept him from visiting Princeton in 2012, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has had his passport returned to him.

Last week, Mr. Ai posted a photo of himself on Instagram holding the document, which had been confiscated by Chinese authorities following the artist’s outspoken remarks on number of national scandals, including collapse of badly-constructed schools during a 2008 earthquake. 

Mr. Ai was detained by authorities for about three months in 2011. Although no charges were brought against him, he was slapped with a $2.4 million tax bill, which he fought unsuccessfully in Chinese courts.

The artist’s work is represented in Princeton by 12 monumental sculptures, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, that were installed at the University’s Scudder Plaza, in front of the Woodrow Wilson School. “The Art Museum joins the international artistic community in celebrating the Chinese government’s return of Ai Weiwei’s passport to him,” said Princeton University Art Museum Director James Steward. “Between this act and a new exhibition of the artist’s work taking place in Beijing, it appears that the Chinese government is showing more tolerance in his regard, and we are delighted by this and by the newfound peace the artist has expressed feeling in response.”

The internationally respected artist, architectural designer, curator and social activist is one of China’s most prolific and controversial dissidents. He collaborated on the design of the Beijing Olympic Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest,” for the 2008 Olympic Games; and exhibited works at the Tate Modern in London.

He is expected to travel to the U.K. in September to view a major exhibition of his work a the Royal Academy of Arts.

“This makes it possible to revisit our hopes of bringing him to the Princeton campus, in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson School, while his Zodiac Heads remain on our campus,” said Mr. Steward.

Mr. Ai was due to visit Princeton in October of 2012 for a day of student and community events in celebration of his art and dedication to human rights. Without his passport the artist was unable to attend.

Zodiac 2

In Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Mr. Ai draws inspiration from sculptures that once adorned the fountain clock at Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat outside Beijing. The carefully detailed bronze figures stand approximately 10 feet in height. Mr. Steward has described them as “at once playful and provocative,” a means to considering “the role of the visual arts in the politics of resistance.”

Each sculpture represents a signs of the zodiac (snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, pig, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, and dragon). The pieces were originally designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Castiglione in the mid-18th century and were looted in 1860 when France and Britain invaded China. Of the 12 figures, only seven are known to have survived. Five have been repatriated to China, but ownership of the remaining two remains contested.

Mr. Ai’s re-envisioning of the figures draws attention to the issues of authenticity, ownership, repatriation and cultural heritage. According to a press release at the time of the installation on the University campus, “By reinterpreting art commissioned by a Qing dynasty emperor, designed by an Italian artist, engineered by a French Jesuit mathematician, and accessible only to the elite circles of 18th-century Chinese society—and then sending the resultant sculptures on a worldwide tour—the artist complicates conversations about repatriation, shared cultural heritage and contemporary expectations regarding the democratization of art and public space.”   The sculptures will be on view through December 4, 2016; the exhibition is part of a world tour of the work, which has appeared in cities including Sao Paulo, London, Los Angeles and Taipei. The sculptures have been generously loaned to the University by the family of an alumnus.