Entertainment

Ai Weiwei's Zodiac Heads Loom Over the Elk-Killing Fields of Wyoming

The most important contemporary art show to ever come to Wyoming casts a long, dark shadow over the supposed animal sanctuary below.

by Nathan C. Martin
Jul 2 2015, 7:16pm

Ai Weiwei. 'Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads' (2010) at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted

The first canned speech I give clients when I'm working as a wilderness guide out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, starts just as we leave town, headed north toward Yellowstone National Park.

"On your right, that sun-dappled, unkempt field is the National Elk Refuge. It's federally protected land where they grow hay all summer, so in the winter, tens of thousands of elk can come down from the mountains to feed there. You can take a horse-drawn sleigh ride out among all the animals. It's really neat."

Murmurs of vague interest issue from the rear of the van, as clients chew on breakfast burritos just procured from Creekside Deli.

"Can anyone guess why the elk might need a refuge?" I continue.

An inquisitive silence.

"It's because the town of Jackson blocked the elk's migration route to their historic winter feeding grounds. In the early 1900s, when settlers filled up the valley, elk would try to head south, reach this point, and stop. Thousands would starve to death, their corpses strewn everywhere right here outside of town. So they created the National Elk Refuge. But the question is, then: Refuge from what?"

I check the rearview mirror to see my clients gazing thoughtfully out at the empty field, processing this rhetorical enigma and the cheese, egg, and tortilla in their mouths.

After a moment I point out my favorite instance of contemporary Western architecture, immediately on our left. The National Museum of Wildlife Art is nestled into the grassy hills overlooking the elk refuge. While, even today, most architects in the region insist on variations of the log cabin, this museum looks like a castle or a fort, its rough stone façade resembling something crumbling and ancient, its squat posture making it seem as though it's sinking into the earth. It reminds me of the deteriorating ghost towns scattered throughout the desert in the southwestern part of the state, where I grew up—structures in the process of breaking down, rejoining the land.

The National Museum of Wildlife Artin Jackson, Wyoming

Of course, there's nothing actually crumbling about the museum. It currently hosts an exhibition by one of the most famous contemporary artists in the world, Ai Weiwei. His outdoor installation Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads has been displayed in the Grand Army Plaza in New York, the Somerset House in London, and in venues across the globe since its debut at the São Paulo Biennale in 2010. Now, his massive bronze renderings of the 12 phases of the Chinese zodiac line the museum's scenic Sculpture Trail.

It's a peculiar place for the exhibition, and few people in the state give a shit that it's the most important contemporary art show to ever come to Wyoming. But the heads cast a poignantly long and dark shadow over the supposed animal sanctuary in the valley below.

Ai's zodiac sculptures are recreations of statues that once lined a pool in an imperial palace in China called Yuanming Yuan, but were looted when British and French soldiers sacked and burned the place in 1860, at the end of the Second Opium War. For years, Chinese schoolchildren have learned about this event as the low point of what's referred to as the Century of National Humiliation, during which China suffered invasion, unequal treaties, and loss of land at the hands of other nations. The original zodiac heads, which were smuggled to Europe and have recently become hot commodities on the global art market, are now potent symbols for the Chinese government, which heralds them as national treasures and demands their repatriation. When two of the heads came up for bid at Christie's during the estate sale of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent in 2009, a member of China's Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Program sabotaged the auction.

Given this heavy narrative, it seems as though exhibiting reproductions of these zodiac heads on land stolen from Native Americans would be rife with meaning—for millennia, the area around Jackson Hole was crucial hunting ground for more than a dozen tribes, who experienced invasion, unequal treaties, and loss of land at the hands of white settlers during their own century of national humiliation. In fact, a dispute between settlers and a party of Shoshone and Bannock Indians near Jackson Hole led to one of the most devastating Supreme Court rulings for indigenous people— Ward v. Race Horse, which stripped tribes' legal right to take game on their historic hunting grounds. The Chinese have built a mythology around the animals of the zodiac that seems comparable in depth and intricacy to traditional Native American beliefs about wildlife. Ai's sculptures of the monkey, the rat, the rooster, the dragon, and the rest stand like totems overlooking the valley, land now allocated for tourism and the rich.

It's impossible to stand anywhere in downtown Jackson and be more than a few hundred yards from an elk statue, a mounted elk head, or other elk-related décor.

I arrived in Jackson on a rainy Friday in May to enjoy a "sneak peek" of the exhibition before it opened. May is a drag in Jackson for my friends who work seasonal jobs there as guides and ski lift operators—there's no snow left to ski, and it's still too cold to run the river. Most are broke, aside from the lucky few who find landscaping gigs clearing winter debris from the grounds of estates owned by titans of finance, movie stars, and other members of the One Percent. Jackson is a tax haven—people who own multiple homes like to keep one here, even though they only dwell here for a week or two each year, to avoid state income tax, estate tax, capital gains tax, and other pesky threats to their wealth. The lesser rich sometimes rent their luxury digs to tourists, who stream into the town in steady supply—enamored by the grand scenery and plentiful wildlife, eager to dine on seared elk medallions—and provide Jackson the majority of its economy.

The sneak peek consisted of 30 or so people—museum patrons wrapped in Columbia, Patagonia, and North Face coats, standing in stylish yet sensible urban mountaineering boots—gathered around the statues to listen to Adam Duncan Harris, the museum's curator, give a basic presentation before turning it over to a student from a local private school. The 17-year-old lad sported a blazer with a pocket square, leather oxfords, and moved so comfortably in expensive preppy clothes one imagines he was born wearing a tennis sweater. Well-versed in Mandarin, Chinese history, and active in Model UN, he told the story of why the animals of the zodiac are arranged in their particular order: A mythical emperor pitted the animals in a race across a river, and they appear in the zodiac according to the place they finished. He provided historical context to the narrative, addressed linguistic issues that may have altered the telling of the tale over time, and peppered his talk with words like "incongruities" and "furthermore." He spoke for ten minutes without notes. It was impressive, and kind of cute. I pictured him decades in the future toasting a round of rice wine with his associates in Chengdu to celebrate a new trans-Pacific trade pact.

But the story of the zodiac animals, and even the interpretation of the artworks that draws parallels between imperialist woes suffered by China and Native American tribes, misses the artist's point. Ai Weiwei considers the Chinese government his adversary, and as the country's leading dissident artist, his work would never echo its sentiments regarding, say, the national importance of some looted sculptures. "I consider myself more of a chess player," he told an interviewer who asked him to describe the type of artist he is in the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. "My opponent makes a move, I make a move." His opponent is the government.

In this case, the government's move to which Ai reacted by creating replicas of the zodiac heads was its trumpeting of the original heads as national treasures in the first place. Ai is keenly attuned to his government's hypocrisy. The Communist Party only began lamenting the loss of looted Chinese cultural objects and making the Century of National Humiliation a talking point after the military quashed the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, killing hundreds of civilians and jailing thousands more. The government needed to point the public's attention toward another (external) enemy, so European imperialists who had desecrated China's cultural heritage became targets—never mind that during Mao's Cultural Revolution, the government destroyed exponentially more historic Chinese objects than any foreigners ever had, from urns to art to temples, in an effort to erase the country's feudal past.

To Ai, the fact that the original zodiac heads had been designed by an Italian Jesuit—who had been hanging around Yuanming Yuan painting pictures that "looked Chinese" for the emperor—made his government's squawking about the heads as paragons of Chinese culture smell all the more like bullshit. "Twelve playthings manufactured in the West are not the quintessence of Chinese culture," he wrote on his blog. In an essay on the Yves Saint Laurent auction, author Colin Jones wrote that the heads are "only a fraction more Chinese than Saint Laurent's 1977 fragrance, Opium ('for those addicted to Yves Saint Laurent')."

Governments misuse and skew symbols all the time: Think of how the World Trade Center became a symbol for post-9/11 patriotism cloaked neatly in the Bush administration's arguments for war with Iraq. Jackson, Wyoming, relies on a hefty set of questionable symbols to sell itself to tourists—intrepid mountain men who conquered this vast wilderness alone (but who really would have died of exposure or starvation had it not been for the help of Indians), the community's steadfast embrace of Western architectural aesthetic (city ordinance mandates that public and commercial buildings have wooden facades), its bountiful wild-trout streams (stocked for a century with non-native species to encourage fly-fishing tourism), and so on. But no symbol in Jackson is more potent or prominent than the elk.

An elk-antler arch in Jackson, Wyoming

It's impossible to stand anywhere in downtown Jackson and be more than a few hundred yards from an elk statue, a mounted elk head, or other elk-related décor—each of the four pathways into the town square leads beneath a massive arch made of antlers shed by elk on the refuge and collected by Boy Scouts.

The crowning attraction is the elk themselves, who cram into the refuge each December through April to feast on government hay. The sleigh rides out among them are more popular today than ever—a record 864 elk lovers partook last Valentine's Day alone, and annual visitors regularly top 20,000.

We spoke to Ai Weiwei over at the Creators Project, where he says "Twitter is art."

"There's no question that the elk-antler arches on the square are the most iconic images for the town of Jackson," said Jeff Golightly, the president of Jackson's chamber of commerce. "They are integral to our character. Whenever people are choosing to visit this community over another, particularly in the winter season, to be able to take a sleigh ride through a herd of elk and learn about the National Elk Refuge and the incredible event we have here, with the migration coming down to north of town here, is a huge draw." So when more and more wildlife biologists are calling for the feeding program that coaxes the elk to the refuge to be shut down, that's bad for local businesses, who depend on tourists to help generate income.

Chronic Wasting Disease isn't in the refuge yet, but it's been slowly marching that way for decades. Biologists argue it's only a matter of time before it reaches Jackson Hole.

The problem with the elk refuge is that it's basically a feedlot, with all the disgusting trappings that repel people from eating beef (or, at least, from thinking about where beef comes from). Foremost, it's an incubator for disease—all those animals packed in close, eating and sleeping for months on each other's piss and shit, the snow piled high behind them in the mountains covering any feed, and the quaint complex of Jackson's log mansions, hobby ranches, and overpriced kitsch stores blocking their path south. They succumb mostly to brucellosis, a cattle disease brought west by early herds that cause wildlife to stillbirth their young. More than 30 percent of elk on the refuge are infected. Since brucellosis is transmitted through bodily fluids like saliva and urine, humans rarely catch it—except, perhaps, in cases like one a Yellowstone park ranger told me about, when she walked up on a woman trying to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a stillborn elk calf.

More worrisome is something called Chronic Wasting Disease, an incurable, always fatal neurological malady that afflicts deer and elk in the region, giving them brain lesions, resulting in pretty much what the name implies—it causes the animals to simply waste away. The disease isn't in the refuge yet, but it's been slowly marching that way for decades and biologists argue it's only a matter of time before it reaches Jackson Hole. This group of elk is one of the last great herds of large animals in the lower 48 states, and while it's one thing to have emaciated animals falling dead on the refuge, the bigger threat comes from the fact that these elk live most of the year in game-rich Yellowstone National Park—a recently published map shows the disease is less than 40 miles from the park's borders. The arrival of Chronic Wasting Disease in Yellowstone, the core of the only remaining intact ecosystem in the continental United States, would give Yellowstone the air of a zombie apocalypse—gaunt, flesh-bare deer and elk with diseased brains staggering through forests, falling dead along roadways traversed by three million annual visitors.

Photo by S. N. Leek. Courtesy of the Stephen Leek Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's bright idea to fight illness on the refuge—besides 30 years of administering a brucellosis vaccine its own scientists deem ineffective—is to let people hunt there in late fall, before the merry sleigh riders arrive. The idea is that hunting culls animals from the herd, decreasing overpopulation and, therefore, disease transmission—hunters killed a record 268 elk on the refuge last fall. The hunt is a grotesque spectacle, the killing of elk lured year after year to a certain spot by food is barely a step up from bison "hunts" for which people pay thousands of dollars to have someone drive them out onto a ranch to shoot a domestic buffalo. My buddy Danny helped pack out an elk his neighbor shot on the refuge this fall. As they were cutting up the carcass into manageable pieces to carry, Danny said, "There were elk running right past us, and all these rednecks just blasting them."

The best solution to saving the elk would be to restore their ability to migrate south of Jackson by creating a corridor for them through the valley, but that's not going to happen—just like the Chinese government isn't going to stop harping about the zodiac heads as though someone stole the goddamned Great Wall of China. Land is too expensive in Jackson, and the valley is full—contractors razed part of a hillside last year to make more room for a new Walgreens, only to have the hill partially collapse and destroy the drugstore under a landslide. Besides, elk draw tourists, and tourists mean money, so anyone who might threaten tourism in Jackson is invited to kindly shut the hell up.

Lloyd Dorsey, conservation director of the Sierra Club in Wyoming, has petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department repeatedly to end the refuge's feeding program. Even though Congress passed a law in the late 90s mandating that refuge management follow the lead of contemporary science, the agencies, under outside pressure, demur—even though they are well aware of how the feeding program turns the refuge into a cesspit.

"It appears to be a matter of politically influenced reluctance and denial," Dorsey told me over email. "The entrenched interests over the past several generations are accustomed to feeding elk in western Wyoming. Any change of that significance is challenging. But change is inevitable. We're either going to get away from the feeding paradigm before Chronic Wasting Disease takes ahold of these elk, or we're going to do it afterward."

Meanwhile, Ai Weiwei remains under house arrest in Beijing, where he's been forbidden to leave since his arrest in 2011 and subsequent 81 days in solitary confinement—punishment for his increasingly outspoken criticisms of the Chinese government. His zodiac heads have traveled the world, but he hasn't seen them since they left China. Like the elk in Jackson, he's stuck, detained by authorities too greedy and proud to admit they're wrong. The officials cling to symbols so transparently distorted that the most casually critical glance reveals the objects—the zodiac heads, the elk refuge—to be emblems of their proponents' own fraud.

Ai Weiwei's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is on view at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming through October 1.

Nathan C. Martin is a writer living in Wyoming. Follow him on Twitter.