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Last week, the terms of prolific Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s house arrest were relaxed. He can leave his house, but he cannot leave his country. This week, the artist battling accusations of pornography and bigamy has $2 million in fines hanging over his head, while in the United States the documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” is being released Wednesday.
At the same time, two of Washington, D.C.’s premier galleries — the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery — have begun a yearlong investigation of Ai’s work.
“A friend, once reminded me, saying ‘Weiwei, beware of newspapers calling you a dissident. It is dangerous,’” Ai said in his artist statement to the Hirshhorn. “In normal circumstances, I know it’s undesirable for an artist to be labeled a political activist or dissident. But I have overcome that barrier.
“The suits that people dress you in are not as important as the content you put forth, so long as it gives meaning to new expression,” he continued. “The struggle is worthwhile if it provides new ways to communicate with people and society. Maybe I’m just an undercover artist in the disguise of a dissident.”
Whatever label he is afforded, Ai, 55, says that he couldn’t care less about its implications.
Ai is perhaps best known to those outside the art world for his collaboration with the architects Herzog & de Meuron on the design of the 2008 Beijing National Olympic Stadium.
Over the past several years, his relationship with Chinese authorities has become rather prickly, culminating in his being placed under house arrest and fined.
It is not surprising that the same artist who worked with the Chinese government on the Olympics while at the same time being a political dissident would explore and grapple with issues of conflicting, contradictory and fractured identities.
The first of the Ai installations to open on the Mall surrounds the perimeter of the outdoor fountain in the center of the Hirshhorn plaza.
“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” which is open through Feb. 24, is actually a dozen 10-foot-tall, bronze animal heads, each representing one of the signs of the Chinese zodiac.
The installation is a partial reproduction of a Qing dynasty fountain clock found in an imperial garden dated from the 18th century. The original was a working timekeeper that told the hour by which animal head — snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, pig, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit or dragon — had water flowing from its mouth.
The work was pillaged in 1860, and five of the original animal heads were lost.