Action star Jackie Chan has claimed he’s never heard of artist Ai Weiwei, which is, needless to say, a pretty ridiculous claim for many reasons. Both Ai and Chan are world-famous Chinese figures of almost the same age, and Ai is one of the world’s most well-known Chinese contemporary artists. In addition, the two happen to have something directly in common: they have both produced creative projects focusing on a highly symbolic set of 12 antique bronze zodiac heads that have become a hotbed of controversy over the past decade.
However, their common interest in the bronzes is where their similarities end, because their views on the subject couldn’t be more different.
Recently, Universal Pictures announced that it will be acquiring the rights in many non-Asian countries to Chinese Zodiac, Chan’s two-hour ode to reclaiming national heritage through martial arts. This sale was made despite the fact that the film opened in Dalian Wanda-owned AMC theaters in the United States to mixed reviews last month. In the film, he plays a mercenary treasure hunter on a mission to track down the heads, which, in real life, were looted from the Qing dynasty Summer Palace in 1860 by Western invaders and are scattered throughout the world in both secret and known locations. Because of their tumultuous history, the Chinese government has worked hard to promote the sentiment that the heads are national treasures that do not rightfully belong outside the country, and Chan’s film emphatically supports this narrative. However, the film has not impressed American audiences, as it was described by reviewers as “an uneven ride that is repeatedly stalled by grandstanding anti-colonial screeds” and a “sad reminder of what Jackie Chan used to be.”
Meanwhile, a very different interpretation of the heads by Ai is going on display in the United States this week: a set of 12 sculptures inspired by the famous looted bronzes will be the focal point of an Ai Weiwei retrospective beginning at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) on December 3 in time for Art Basel Miami, which kicks off on December 5. The bronzes were previously on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario from June until September, and a similar, smaller set by Ai also recently went on exhibition at the Crow Collection of Asian Art, a museum in Dallas, where it will be available for viewing until March 2, 2014.
The heads are regarded as vitally important national symbols, and Chinese Zodiac embraces two main premises put forth by the Chinese government about them: first, that they are wholly “Chinese” works of art and thus national treasures, and second, the entire set’s rightful return to China is a necessary step in fully stamping out the legacy of the country’s “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of British and other Western imperialists that started during the first Opium War in 1840, and was in full force by the second in 1860 when the palace was sacked.
Ai Weiwei strongly disagrees with the idea that the heads are a “national treasure,” or that the Chinese government truly cares about preserving culture. In a 2010 interview, he said, “I don’t think the zodiac heads are a national treasure. They were designed by an Italian, made by a Frenchman for a Qing dynasty emperor who was the ruler of China, but the Manchus of the Qing dynasty actually invaded China. So if we talk about national treasure, what nation are we talking about?” In his evaluation, the bronzes “are not exactly Chinese in appearance. … It’s not really Chinese culture.”
He also questions the Chinese government’s claim that it cares about preserving culture and history. “They never really care about culture. This is the nature of the Communists: to destroy the old world, to rebuild a new one,” he said. He has a point: in the rush for modernization, an estimated tens of thousands of historic sites have been devoured by aggressive development projects. However, the symbolic importance of antique national treasures is featured heavily throughout the film. In addition to the zodiac heads, stolen relics from other countries such as Saudi Arabia, India, and Egypt are shown in order to create a sense of solidarity with other countries that have been victimized by the West.
The bronzes’ sporadic appearances at Western auction houses over the years have prompted angry responses by the Chinese government and press. In 2009, when Christie’s auctioned the rabbit and rat head, a nationalist bidder won the item and then refused to pay, adding even more attention to the controversy. It was only when Christie’s owner François-Henri Pinault personally purchased and donated the heads to China this year, likely fully cognizant of their importance, that Christie’s fully returned to Beijing’s good graces and received permission to operate independently on the mainland—the first time a foreign auction house has ever received such access. Although neither Christie’s nor the government stated that this permission was granted because of the heads, they certainly didn’t hurt in gaining the auction house this unprecedented permission to operate on the mainland. The donation is also likely to benefit Pinault’s luxury conglomerate Kering, which owns Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, and more.
Another issue for the Chinese government is the symbol of “national humiliation” that the heads represent. In the words of historian John Delury in a New York Times article about this year’s donation by Pinault, “It is easy to forget, watching China emerge as a great power, that the legacy of humiliation at the hands of modern imperialist aggressors back in the 19th century retains a palpable sense of immediacy even today,” he said. “So what might seem a rather obscure gesture of returning a pair of bronze animal heads takes on outsized significance as a kind of restitution of historical justice, a long-awaited righting of wrongs to the Chinese nation.”
This concept is elucidated in the film as well, such as in a scene when an indignant Chinese student argues with a fictional French woman descended from a soldier who had brought back spoils from the sacking of the Summer Palace. As the Chinese student grows angrier as they argue about rightful ownership, the woman insists that it was long ago in the past and should be forgotten. Chan’s character, still in his mercenary mindset, agrees with the French woman, only to reverse his sentiments in the end when (spoiler) he makes a grand gesture to heroically rescue the head from being inexplicably dropped into a volcano.
In contrast, Ai Weiwei believes the Chinese government is misguided in putting such a strong emphasis on the symbolism of these objects. According to him, his set of sculptures is meant to question ideas of “real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to the current political and social understandings and misunderstandings.” Pointing out the fact that the heads’ exponentially growing value at auction is deeply rooted in their political significance, he said, “Once people start to buy, the price jumps—doubles, triples, crazily high—and even becomes a national affair.”
In Ai’s opinion, the Chinese government is “not clear about what is most important in this so-called tradition or classics. The zodiac is a perfect example to show their ignorance on this matter.”