Twelve oversize bronze sculptures of animal heads representing the Chinese zodiac are scheduled to be unveiled in New York on Monday. But the creator of the work, “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads," will not be with them. The internationally-known artist and activist Ai Weiwei was detained in China at the Beijing airport while trying to board a plane bound for Hong Kong.
"This has been an upsetting and distressing couple of days," said Alison Klayman, who has been working on a documentary about Ai for the past two years. "We're all really hoping that we hear word soon. And I'm staying in really close contact with some of the people at his studio in Beijing."
Klayman said she did not know why Ai was detained but that his arrest was part of a recent government crackdown on Chinese artists, journalists and critics.
"This crackdown is coming, I think, partly in response to the Jasmine Revolution events in the Middle East, and this is how China has chosen to respond," she said. "The Human Rights Watch China researcher has said this seems like more than just the usual tightening and loosening cycles that sometimes China goes through, and may be a more fundamental redrawing of the boundaries of freedom of expression."
She added that of all those people who are currently detained in China, Ai was the most prominent person missing.
Culture critic Lee Rosenbaum, who blogs as CultureGrrl at ArtsJournal.com, agreed.
"It is really something that rises to the level of international concern," she said, adding that Germany, France, Austria and the U.S. had all made statements about Ai's detention. "His continued disappearance makes him into a martyr."
Ai (pictured left), who was part of the team that designed the so-called Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing 2008 Olympics, has been detained before. Prior to this month, he was stopped last December with other Chinese dissidents when trying to leave China in the week leading up to the Nobel Peace Prize awards. A month before that, he had been placed on house arrest in Beijing after opposing the government's demolition of a studio he built in Shanghai. In August of 2009, he was allegedly beaten by police in a hotel in Sichuan after blogging about how shoddy school construction caused student deaths during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, according to Klayman.
The Consulate General of the People's Republic of China did not return WNYC's call for a comment.
Despite Ai's most recent disappearance, New York City and the arts group AW Asia said on Tuesday they would still unveil “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" outside the Plaza Hotel on May 2.
"We are proud to host this work by an innovative and influential artist and welcome him and his work to N.Y.C.," said a spokesperson from Mayor Bloomberg's office.
Larry Warsh, founder of AW Asia, requested that Ai be released immediately. "He is among the greatest living artists and thinkers, and a globally respected champion of human rights," he said.
Klayman said Ai's sculpture was inspired by statues in the Yuanming Yuan gardens in Beijing that was sacked by British and French soldiers in 1860, and ended up gaining value on the auction block. Now, they carry different meanings depending on who is looking at them.
"If you're in the know, you know why these heads have a political significance," Klayman said. "And if you're not, you can just enjoy them because you can figure out which one of them is your zodiac sign."
“Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" will be on view in New York from May 2 through July 15.
Updated 9 A.M., 5/2/11