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Image: (Detail) The Zodiac Project, Ai Weiwei © DING MUSA

The Zodiac Project is Ai Weiwei's first major public sculpture. For this monumental new work, Weiwei has recreated the famous twelve bronze animal heads that once adorned the Zodiac Fountain in Yuan Ming Yuan, the Old Summer Palace, in Beijing. Cast around 1750, the original heads were looted by Anglo-French troops who took part in the destruction of Yuan Ming Yuan in 1860 during the Second Opium War. The heads remain a potent trigger for Chinese nationalist sentiments. Weiwei's new work suggests a dialogue about the fate of art objects that exist within dynamic and sometimes volatile cultural and political settings.

Ai Weiwei is known for his constant engagement with Chinese history as a shifting site rather than a static body of knowledge. With his subversive wit, the artist adapts objects from the Chinese material canon going back to antiquity, twisting traditional meanings toward new purposes. Wei Wei's continuous exploration of the historical object finds great resonance with the encyclopedic collection of LACMA, which includes Chinese art from the Neolithic to the Qing Dynasty period.

Ai Weiwei grew up the son of acclaimed poet Ai Qing and spent several years as a child exiled in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. He spent more than a decade in New York, returning to China in 1993. He was detained in April, 2011, for close to three months before being charged with tax evasion and released on bail. He is currently prohibited from leaving Beijing. He has become an international symbol of the ongoing struggle for freedom of expression and dissent.

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Ai Weiwei with a Zodiac Head, via Artinfo

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Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei, via Artinfo

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Ai Weiwei, Bronze rat head  from The Zodiac Project. photo arrestedmotion.com

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 Weiwei, Bronze ox head  from The Zodiac Project. photo arrestedmotion.com

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 Weiwei, Bronze tiger head  from The Zodiac Project. photo arrestedmotion.com

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 Weiwei, Bronze rabbit head  from The Zodiac Project. photo arrestedmotion.com

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 Ai Weiwei, Bronze dragon head  from The Zodiac Project. photo arrestedmotion.com

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 Ai Weiwei, Bronze snake head  from The Zodiac Project. photo arrestedmotion.com

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 Ai Weiwei, Bronze horse head  from The Zodiac Project. photo arrestedmotion.com

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  Ai Weiwei, Bronze goat head  from The Zodiac Project. photo arrestedmotion.com

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  Ai Weiwei, Bronze monkey head  from The Zodiac Project. photo arrestedmotion.com

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 Ai Weiwei, Bronze rooster head  from The Zodiac Project. photo arrestedmotion.com

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  Ai Weiwei, Bronze dog head  from The Zodiac Project. photo arrestedmotion.com

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  Ai Weiwei, Bronze pig head  from The Zodiac Project. photo arrestedmotion.com

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Bronze rat head  from the zodiac fountain at the yuanmingyuan. Qianlong period (r. 1736-1795) from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé

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Bronze rabbit head, from the zodiac fountain at the yuanmingyuan. Qianlong period (r. 1736-1795) from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé