Installation photo, Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, March 26, 2022–ongoing, © Ai Weiwei Studio, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Conserving Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads

October 17, 2023
Celena Gilmore, Assistant Director, Conservation Center

Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010) marks a significant milestone in his artistic career. This monumental creation pays homage to the renowned 12 bronze animal heads that once adorned the Zodiac Fountain of the Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) in Beijing. These original heads, crafted around 1750, fell victim to looting by Anglo-French troops during the destructive events of the Second Opium War in 1860. Ai Weiwei's artwork initiates a thought-provoking conversation about the destiny of art pieces existing within ever-evolving and occasionally turbulent cultural and political landscapes. Employing his characteristically subversive wit, the artist takes objects deeply rooted in China's historical and material heritage and transforms their traditional meanings.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is now part of LACMA’s permanent collection and has received treatment from LACMA’s Conservation team. The sculptures had varying degrees of copper corrosion on their surfaces, which had to be manually removed by object conservators using various hand tools including plastic skewers, scalpels, and toothbrushes, among others. Treated areas were then wiped down with ethanol to remove any powdery residues.

Once the corrosion products were removed, the zodiac heads were brought to LACMA and installed under the roof of the Smidt Welcome Plaza. In their temporary location, the pieces received a hot wax treatment, which entails cleaning the surface of the sculpture by rinsing the surface with pressurized water and then scrubbing the surface with a conservation-grade soap before rinsing to clear and drying with microfiber cloths. After the sculpture is dry, the metal surface is gently heated with a propane torch in sections. A blend of carnauba/microcrystalline waxes is then applied to the warmed surface with a brush. Once the sculpture is cool, the surface is buffed with soft cotton clothes and/or brushes. 

In honor of 2023 being the Year of the Rabbit, we’ve produced a time-lapse video of the hot wax treatment process on the rabbit zodiac head sculpture at LACMA. The hot wax treatment and washing have been carried out semiannually for the past two years to continue care of the sculptures while they remain outdoors.

Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is on view on the Zev Yaroslavsky Plaza.