Public Art in Chicago: Ai Weiwei's "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads"


Chicago is home to nearly 300 monuments, sculptures, and fountains. Thanks to the dedication of the Chicago Park District, public art from a wide variety of artists are available to us for viewing throughout the city. 

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, an outspoken Chinese artist, has a public art installation at the Alder Planetarium. The Chicago Park District and City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events brought the series of sculptures, titled “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads”,to Adler in 2014. These sculptures consist of bronze animal heads that represent the Chinese zodiac signs. However, the meaning of this installation goes beyond the common representation of the Chinese astrological signs. 

Ai Weiwei has been beaten and imprisoned in China for his work that challenges the power of China’s communist government. He also speaks out against the lack of respect for Chinese culture in the international art world. The zodiac sign installation is a recreation of the zodiac clock at Yuanmingyuan, the Garden of Perfect Brightness.

An imperial retreat built a century earlier, the Yuanmingyuan featured an ornate, European-style section with grand fountains, gardens, and palaces. At the center was a splendid zodiac water-clock fountain, designed to mark the hours of the day with 12 bronze-headed figures representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac.
— Susan Delson, University of Chicago Magazine Reviews

The original sculptures were looted by French and British troops in the 18th century. Ai Weiwei’s recreation is a comment on the convoluted relationship between China and the West, as well as the modern relationship between China and its people. The original sculptures are a reminder of the Qing era in China, a time of degradation by the West. Ai Weiwei has brought these images back to remember his culture during this time period and honor his country’s past. 

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads with hoods

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads with hoods

In September 2014, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads traveled to Chicago, it’s 14th destination. When first installed the heads were shrouded in hoods to represent the mistreatment of the Chinese and Weiwei by the Chinese government. While the installation moves freely throughout the world, Weiwei is confined to China because of his radical beliefs. Chinese people as a whole live under tight restrictions enforced by the Chinese government. A statement written by AW Asia, the organization that is responsible for the installation’s world tour, describes the installation as being an overall representation of Ai Weiwei’s artistic message: 

These works have become a symbol of the artist’s resolve to keep his message current: unbridled free-expression for all.

The Circle of Animals/Zodiac is just one of Chicago’s many public artworks. To see a full list of all the public artworks our city has to offer, visit the Chicago Park District website here.

Jennie Scheerer