In 2011, the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei exhibited 12 bronze animal heads representing the signs of the Chinese zodiac outside the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. The heads were enlarged replicas of a set designed in the 18th century by two European Jesuits for the emperor Qianlong and displayed in the gardens of the Yuanmingyuan, the emperor’s Old Summer Palace. At the time of the exhibition, Ai had disappeared into detention in China. The political controversy overshadowed the work itself, which posed its most searching questions not to the Chinese government, but to the West. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the Old Summer Palace was ransacked and torched by French and British soldiers. In “From the Ruins of Empire,” his timely and important history of Asian intellectual responses to Western colonialism, Pankaj Mishra quotes one looter who said that to describe “the splendors before our astonished eyes, I should need to dissolve specimens of all known precious stones in liquid gold for ink, and to dip it into a diamond pen tipped with the fantasies of an oriental poet.”
more from Hari Kunzru at the NY Times here.