Inter-area/Border Crossing

Organized Panel Session

4 - Traumatic Bodies: The Yuanming Yuan Zodiac Heads and Their Contemporary "Translations"

Thursday, March 22
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Location: Virginia Suite A, Lobby Level

In 1860, Anglo-French troops occupied the Yuanming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) and looted and burned the Qing imperial garden. The ruined site has served as a space of trauma in the writing of modern Chinese history; when its looted objects reappear on the auction block, they serve as reminders of that violence. Of those, none have garnered as much attention and controversy as the zodiac animal heads. In the wake of the zodiac auctions, several contemporary artists have created their own sculptural interpretations of the animal heads. I first argue that the potency of the zodiac sculptures comes not only from their status as looted objects, but arises from their material form as decapitated heads. As bodily fragments, the sculptures serve as metonymic substitutes for the history of violence against Chinese sovereignty, bodies, and heritage; the heads not only enfold the violence of the Opium Wars, but also embody later historical moments of trauma. I then address contemporary sculptural reinterpretations of the heads by artist-activist Ai Weiwei, molten-bronze artist Zhu Bingren, and superstar Jackie Chan. Because these are not exact copies, I consider these acts of artistic reproduction are acts of translation. I argue that as “translations,” the new heads never occupy neutral space, but occupy multivalent spatial arenas, so that site specificity modulates the message of their bodily forms. The new heads not only address the reproduction (“translation”) of physical form, but more significantly, address the reproduction of—and challenges to—national identities, heritage practices, and global justice.

Patricia Yu

Getty Research Institute, California

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4 - Traumatic Bodies: The Yuanming Yuan Zodiac Heads and Their Contemporary "Translations"



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