After having visited LACMA a plethora of times before, I pulled into the familiar parking lot and entered the unassuming modern and minimalist elevator. It almost seemed inevitable hearing incessantly of Ai Weiwei and his new exhibit of Zodiac Heads to make the pilgrimage there. The artist had been imprisoned in China, calling into question freedom of speech as well as freedom of art itself and the manner in which the artists can express themselves. After reading about the exhibit before hand, about their rooting in ancient sculpture of the Zodiac Heads once belonging in a royal palace garden, I went in with high expectations of a set of imperialist ornate Zodiac Heads set in an elaborate garden. What I found upon exiting the elevator was certainly not as grandiose. Completely overlooking the collection of bronze heads, I went straight to make the line for members to get a ticket for the exhibition. The ticket salesman who informed me I had completely bypassed the exhibit, which is not ticketed nor do they have any printed material on such exhibit, met me with a confused look. Looping back around to the collection of heads I found them absolutely mesmerizing. The heads are mounted on small branch like stems that attach them to a floral motif base, cast in beautiful bronze with exquisite detailing. Of particular mention are the cock, dragon and tiger heads which feature fine carving and handicraft of the artist. Formerly unimpressed, I immediately became mesmerized at the interplay of tradition, Chinese culture and the modern pieces that met my eye. Art historians often talk about sculpture as living and interacting with their environments, such as the sculpture pieces in the Piazzo Vecchio in Florence; it goes without saying that I was startled by the seemingly life-like animal busts. The large open courtyard transformed into a fantastical menagerie of animals from a long lost part of Chinese history. Yet the presentation still left something to be desired. The placement of the pieces around the elevator leaves the viewing of these pieces obstructed and partial at best. I had expected to be at the center of the ring, twirling around to catch the gaze of each head, shifting constantly, almost dizzyingly to engage each head, but instead I found myself walking around to each head to inspect them singularly. Though this method allowed for an in-depth inspection of each piece, as one would any other piece of art, by not being able to see them as a whole, something seemed to be missing- like an erased Adam from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The artist was unable to make the opening of the exhibit due to conditions of his sentencing in China. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider if the presentation would have been any different with greater input from the Ai Weiwei himself. However the pieces overall were stunning in their finesse, to the point it almost seems a tragedy that the artist has become so persecuted in his home country. It is easy to see why Yves Saint Laurent owned two of the original Zodiac heads, which gave birth to these equally fashionable pieces. Without a cost for entering the museum, and only ten dollars for parking, this exhibit is an absolute must see, providing a rare glimpse at an artist’s work who is undeniably hot in the current media. Take the risk and stare down the dragon, play with the monkey, become hypnotized by the snake, awakened and startled by the cock and give into the rest of the animals at Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads.
By: Brian Evans