Art, Freedom, and a Menagerie: On Ai Weiwei’s “Zodiac”

By Melissa ChanJanuary 30, 2024

Art, Freedom, and a Menagerie: On Ai Weiwei’s “Zodiac”

Zodiac by Ai Weiwei

AI WEIWEI BEGINS Zodiac (2024) by reflecting on his childhood exile to Western China and the impact of the Cultural Revolution, a period of collective Communist Party psychopathy responsible for the deaths of either hundreds of thousands of Chinese or millions—no one knows exact numbers, because the decade’s havoc granted no place for facts or accountability.

Ai’s father was the criminal. In a precursor to the chaos known as the Anti-Rightist Campaign, Beijing punished Ai Qing, a poet, for expressing his views. He was banished to a rural village to clean toilets. That is where China’s renowned contemporary artist and activist grew up. Ai Weiwei’s earliest encounters with the state involved the expulsion of people, their ideas, and their books.

In Zodiac, Ai’s first graphic novel, freedom and kindness are consequently two major themes. For Ai, the first concept includes freedom not only from authoritarianism but also from the kind of fear that will later allow him, as a young man, to explore art and find his political voice. Kindness becomes the antidote against the cruelty humans choose to inflict on others.

Ai released his prose memoir, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, in 2021, but it is with the comic format, in many ways a more fitting genre for a visual artist such as Ai, that his admirers may better connect with his story. Zodiac, produced in collaboration with Italian illustrator Gianluca Costantini and Greek Italian writer Elettra Stamboulis, is divided into chapters devoted to the animals in Chinese astrology, with each section adopting its own style and tone. The narrative structure flows in an orthodox manner in some parts, but in others, the story is deconstructed, and the dialogue almost absurdist.

The book’s illustrator, Costantini, is a political cartoonist whose line art is characterized by microscopic detail. Each panel here constitutes its own elegant work, spanning hundreds of images across the entire book. Costantini often focuses on human rights in his work, having produced art connected to the 2010–11 Arab Spring, the 2019–20 Hong Kong protests, and, most recently, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Ai’s editorial collaborator, Stamboulis, curated exhibitions for Joe Sacco and Marjane Satrapi. Together, Zodiac’s trio of creators makes this graphic novel an indisputable sensation.

As serious as Zodiac’s subject matter may be, the book remains playful, from the curlicue tails of the speech balloons to Ai’s own irreverent expressions that often break the fourth wall. It is not strict biography but rather a vivid journey touching on some of the central philosophies that drive him, along with memorable moments in his life.

Strange things happen across Zodiac’s pages, with dreamscapes butting into everyday scenes, not to mention a sense of magical realism—at one point, for example, a dinner roundtable with Chinese creatives floats away on a flying sea turtle. The text can become as whimsical as the images.

“The cat, which is an extraordinary animal,” Ai observes, “is not in the circle of the zodiac.” As the author laments the omission of his favorite creature from the Chinese lunar pantheon, he explains that “it’s an animal that can open doors … but they are different from human beings because they don’t close the doors behind them.” Once again, Ai brings the tale back to the idea of freedom.

It should be a simple concept, but it is not. During a Christmas Eve interview I conducted with him a few years ago, Ai dwelled on the conundrum of being an exiled activist—now living beyond China’s borders and, in theory, away from the grasp of the Chinese Communist Party. He was physically free, but despite his success, celebrity, and wealth, he was apart from his family, particularly his mother, and had lost his own country.

“For many people, they love freedom, but they’re not prepared to lose everything,” Ai told me. Thinking about the young protesters who had taken to the streets in recent years, from Hong Kong to Myanmar, he wondered, “Once they lose everything, do they still have freedom?”

My own time as a foreign correspondent in Beijing was a lesson on the complex nature of freedom. In China, the battle isn’t for the freedom to own guns or even the freedom to shout your opinions from the rooftops. Citizens fight for the freedom to exist. The state treats people like pawns in some manifest history, one with few authentic individuals but plenty of elite leaders or mythic heroes gracing propaganda content. Quite simply, you do not matter—and if you decide to make your life matter, chances are high that you will soon run into trouble with the state. The country is not a place for iconoclasts.

One such thinker was the dissident and philosopher Liu Xiaobo, who ultimately died as an imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his pro-democracy manifesto, Charter 08. Most people in China today would not know his name—he has been erased by the Party, to the point that officials forced a sea burial after he died so there could never be a grave or marker for people to converge around and pay their respects.

Liu never flinched against the state’s brutality, despite being in and out of prison for his political ideals. Instead of breaking him, punishment emboldened him.

“My searing desire to atone for having survived helps me resist the temptations to join the world of lies,” Liu reflected in a 2003 essay.

Ai touches on Liu’s struggle in Zodiac. “Time is an ally of oblivion,” he writes; Beijing weaponizes time in an attempt to expunge the work and memory of people like Liu. For Ai, the answer to the state’s attempt to destroy those individuals among the billion who choose self-actualization is to pursue art: “Poetry is the only tool of resistance.”

Such aphorisms may sound pithy and naive in the face of a political entity like the Chinese Communist Party. Its founder Mao Zedong famously proclaimed that “[p]olitical power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” but Mao surely knew the strength of creativity as well—he would not have pursued his campaign against artists and intellectuals otherwise. They operate in a mental space beyond authoritarian control.

This truth is particularly resonant in China’s current society of maximal techno-surveillance. During the country’s pandemic lockdown, citizens could not even freely exit their own apartments, while drones hovered in the air wailing out recorded messages, including the directive to “curb your soul’s desire for freedom.”

This dark comedy of tyrannical overreach extends beyond China’s borders. I visited Ai’s exhibition in 2014 at the former prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, soon after moving to the city from China in what felt like a crash landing. I had come from a place where nothing was permissible to a heady Silicon Valley where absolutely everything was possible. Ai discusses this exhibition in Zodiac—paper dragons and more than a million LEGO bricks repurposed to construct portraits of political prisoners brightened the dull cement interiors. Wandering the dim halls, I felt I was witnessing the luminous power of Chinese creativity to indict the failure of the American prison system. Added to that was the ironic twist to Ai’s installation—he was still residing in China at the time, and officials barred him from leaving to work on the installation. Ai was forced to produce the show remotely.

Despite its sometimes dense text and serious adult subject matter, Zodiac is suitable for children, particularly teens. Much of the book portrays Ai telling his son a mix of fables and family history, often involving his own poet father, in an intergenerational transfer of wisdom from the grandfather to the father to the son. The pages become windowpanes, casual glimpses into Ai’s daily life. His universe is delightful, filled with honest and heartfelt conversations, and imbued with kindness in spades.

LARB Contributor

Melissa Chan is an Emmy-nominated journalist based between Los Angeles and Berlin. Her debut graphic novel, You Must Take Part in Revolution, co-authored with activist artist Badiucao, is set for release in 2024. She has written for The New York Times, where she was nominated for a Loeb Award—business journalism’s highest honor—and for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Time, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and more. With Al Jazeera English, she served as a broadcast correspondent in China before her expulsion from the country for the channel’s reports. Her work there was recognized with two Human Rights Press Awards from Amnesty International and a citation from the Overseas Press Club.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!