Joseph Wang and his fiancée, Diana Ho, say they were surprised to see 12 bronze animal heads mounted 10 feet high on posts in front of Robertson Hall, home of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. The art is that of famous Chinese political activist and artist, Ai Wei Wei.
“We were just driving along and were like ‘whoa, that can’t be them,’” said Wang in an interview with The VOICE. Wang studied classics at Princeton and graduated in 2001.
The exhibit is Ai Weiwei’s “Zodiac Heads/Circle of Animals,” a travelling exhibition featuring the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Cast in bronze, the statues share the space known as Scudder Plaza with James Fitzgerald’s “Fountain of Freedom.” The Princeton University website featuring the exhibit says that, through the work, “Ai complicates conversations about repatriation, shared cultural heritage and contemporary expectations regarding the democratization of art and public space.”
Such issues are central to the political controversy concerning the artist, issues that gained widespread international attention over the past few years as the Chinese government continuously “hounded” the man, according to Mark Stevens’ article, “Is Ai Weiwei China’s Most Dangerous Man?” that was published this month in The Smithsonian.
Stevens’ article discusses Ai’s criticisms of the Chinese government, including his denunciation of the 2008 Beijing Olypmics, and one exhibit that implicated government oversight in the deaths of over 5,000 schoolchildren.
Stevens also discusses the outcry of much of the Western world at Ai’s detention: The predominant opinion seems to be that he has been targeted by the Chinese government for his freedom of expression, rather than having committed any of the crimes with which he has been charged.
Most recently, Ai appealed charges of tax evasion, but his case was rejected by the Chinese government. In a televised response, the artist’s lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang stated, “I know political power can be very stupid, but I did not believe it could be stupid to such an extent, stupid to the extent that it tells lies like this.”
James Steward, the Director of the Princeton University Art Museum, which co-sponsored the installation with the Woodrow Wilson School, spoke to the relationship between art and politics in an interview with The VOICE: “The power of art to comment on politics, on regime legitimacy and other issues of this kind, can be very compelling.”
Steward distanced the Art Museum from the controversy though, by adding: “in presenting such work we are not per se taking a stand on the artist’s political position, or on the government or issue they may be confronting through their work.”
Steward is concerned, though, that Ai’s public spotlight as an activist may overshadow the artistic value of his work. “One of the challenges of becoming known as a dissident artist, one who like Ai Weiwei is as famous for his dissident stance as for the works of art he makes, is that we may cease to see the art on its own terms.”
Steward believes the installation has been successful. “You have to expect that often seeing the work of art will provoke as many questions as it answers.” Steward said, adding: “But if it provokes that curiosity to such a point than even a small percentage of viewers are motivated to consider what the answers might be, or to seek out more information, then I think it’s done its work.”