The dragon, the monkey and the tiger: Not the animals you expect to see gracing the wide-open spaces of Wyoming. But you can now see these creatures, along with other Chinese Zodiac animals perched above the National Elk Refuge. Rebecca Huntington reports on a major international exhibit on display in Jackson.
REBECCA HUNTINGTON: Outside the National Museum of Wildlife Art, a crane lifts the bronze head of a pig up off the ground. Then workers step in to guide the giant lollypop-shaped sculpture over to the pedestal.
WORKER: "It's got to go that way right. This way? Awesome... towards you..."
HUNTINGTON: Monte Paddleford is part of the installation crew from Eagle Bronze Foundry in Lander.
PADDLEFORD: "Very unique. We've never done Zodiacs before, and it's truly unique, just the way they're made and their sizes and their shapes..."
HUNTINGTON: Each bronze head weighs anywhere from 800 to 1,200 pounds. The pig is the last of 12 heads to be installed along the museum's outdoor sculpture trail. Called the "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads," the exhibit is the work of Ai Weiwei. He’s one of China's most famous dissident artists, an outspoken critic of China…and while his art is allowed to travel, he is not. Museum President Jim McNutt says Ai Weiwei's exhibit is an experience not to be missed.
MCNUTT: "I think you need to see something by a world-class, world-renown contemporary artist, who is looking at history, the history of China, the relationship between China and the rest of the world."
HUNTINGTON: The exhibit re-envisions Zodiac animals originally designed for an outdoor fountain clock in the 18th Century during the Qing dynasty. The originals were destroyed and looted by European invaders. Ai Weiwei offers the exhibit as a symbol of Chinese national pride and a representation of the issues of looting and repatriation.
But the artist also intends the exhibit to be fun, says Museum Curator Adam Duncan Harris.
HARRIS: "If you go with Ai Weiwei's basic premise, is that people should come up here and have fun looking at the heads and identifying what sign they are. It's an immediately interactive installation. So at that level, he just wants you to come and enjoy them."
HUNTINGTON: Among those relishing this unique opportunity to see Ai Weiwei's work in Wyoming is 17-year-old Walter Thulin. He's been studying Chinese culture and language at the Jackson Hole Community School. The museum invited Thulin to give a tour of the new installation and a lesson on the Chinese Zodiac to museum visitors.
THULIN: "I invite you to open up the little guide that was passed around. It should contain your birth year and that coincides with the Chinese Zodiac."
HUNTINGTON: You’ve seen this on Chinese restaurant placemats. The Zodiac represents a 12-year cycle, with each year related to an animal, starting with the rat and ending with the pig. Thulin says that while the Chinese government and Communist Party formally reject the Zodiac, it still carries cultural influence.
THULIN: "There's a fairly famous Chinese philosopher who claimed that he didn't believe in the Zodiac. He said this, however because he was a rat and rats are skeptical."
HUNTINGTON: Among those on Thulin's tour is Lyndsay McCandless, an artist and the Executive Director of the Center of Wonder, a non-profit that helped fund the exhibit. McCandless says the Wyoming landscape sets this installation apart from the urban places where it's already been. In fact, this is the first time the exhibit has been anywhere in the Rocky Mountains.
MCCANDLESS: "It's so breathtaking. You look out and behind is the green of the Elk Refuge and the mountains behind it. The visual impact is tremendous."
HUNTINGTON: But museum president Jim McNutt says the exhibit won't just be visual.
MCNUTT: "Of all the installations, including those in Chicago and New York and Los Angeles, this is the only one that's going to have music."
MCCANDLESS: "I love that that turns it into a full sensory experience. You are going to walk out there and you see and you hear and you feel and you just get such an amazing art experience from what they've created here at the museum."
HUNTINGTON: McCandless says the sonic scape will be added in July. The Zodiac Heads will be on view at the museum through October 11th. For Wyoming Public Radio, I'm Rebecca Huntington in Jackson.