Monday, May 9, 2011

Waterclocks and Weiwei

Thanks to AV for drawing my attention to this public sculpture by Ai Weiwei. Currently in the Pulizter Fountain in Midtown Manhattan, the sculpture comprises twelve brass animal heads, each corresponding to a figure in the Chinese zodiac.

From the NYT article:

"The heads are enlarged versions of those that were designed in the 18th century by European Jesuits for the Manchu emperor Qianlong as part of a famous fountain clock in the European-style gardens of the Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, near Beijing."

The notion of a water clock with brass zodiac figures actually goes back even farther than the 18th century, and isn't a European invention. Frankish chronicles from the 9th century detail the gift of a waterclock from the Abbasid caliph, Harun al-Rashid, to Charlemagne in 807. The clock had twelve bronze horsemen who appeared through different windows to mark the hours. A later invention, of al-Jazari, the Syrian engineer and automaton-maker, marked the phases of the moon, played music, and had figures of the zodiac on it. (The image above is taken from a leaf of an early 14th century manuscript at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.) Later Europeans were taken with these inventions and started to incorporate them into their own garden settings as early as the 14th century, and they proliferated over the next several centuries...until the basic idea appeared in a Chinese palace built by Jesuit missionaries, and then was reinterpreted and installed in the middle of New York City.

Medieval history, people. It's where it's at.

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