Gianluca Costantini
Political Comics

Zodiac, a Graphic Memoir. Reviewed by Sean Macdonald

This page is available in English (UK) , Italian

By Ai Weiwei
With Elettra Stamboulis, illustrated by Gianluca Costantini

Reviewed by Sean Macdonald
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March, 2024)

It is too often forgotten that some if not all symbols had a material and concrete existence before coming to symbolize anything . . . Another example is the zodiac, which represents the horizon of the herder set down in an immensity of pasture: a figure, then, of demarcation and orientation. Initially- and fundamentally- absolute space has a relative aspect. Relative spaces, for their part, secrete the absolute.[1]—Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space

If so far in this book the word “dissident” has been used sparingly, it is because the vast majority of intellectuals who desired change and a shift towards a more democratic and open system did not perceive themselves as “dissident.” [2]—Gregory B. Lee, The Lost Decade

Ai Weiwei is a true postmodern artist. When Ai started producing art in New York City in the 1980s, Andy Warhol was still alive. But Ai did not just pick up techniques from contemporary Western art, he entered into it headfirst through a kind of performance of personality. In traditional Chinese visual culture, personality is as important as individualism is in the avant-garde.[3] Ai Weiwei’s personality is an important component of his art. In some ways, this gives the impression that his role is analogous to that of a film director, organizing performances and happenings to remind the public he has not gone away.

Figure 1: The cover. Zodiac, a Graphic Memoir (Ten Speed Graphic, 2024). 176pp. ISBN: 978-1-9848-6299-0.

For many scholars of contemporary Chinese culture, Ai Weiwei is a presence, even a cultural icon of dissident culture. As Xiaobing Tang noted almost a decade ago, Ai was “the darling of Western mainstream media and art establishments.”[4] And his influence has only grown with social media, of which Ai is a very savvy and capable user. For anyone who has followed Ai Weiwei’s work, the overarching narrative of Zodiac—his recently published graphic novel memoir—is familiar. It tells of his father Ai Qing’s life as a poet arrested and imprisoned in 1932 by the KMT for his revolutionary activities. Under the CCP, Ai Qing was arrested as a “rightist” and class enemy of the state in 1957 and subsequently exiled to Xinjiang. Ai Weiwei accompanied his father on his exile (12-14). Following his work on the Sichuan earthquake in August 2009, Ai was beaten by police. In 2010, he would be placed under house arrest. In April 2011, he was arrested at the Beijing airport and prosecuted for tax evasion, among other charges, and lost the ability to travel outside the country until 2015 when he was given a passport. Ai’s politics is very public, and he has become a global citizen, perhaps one of the most identifiable contemporary Chinese artists, or contemporary artists period. He is a celebrity avant-garde artist, who has already made a historical impact and has a globally-known personality.

Zodiac’s cover illustration is striking (fig. 1). It transforms Ai Weiwei into a celestial in black and white with flaming hair, eyebrows, beard, and a halo made of surveillance cameras. He holds what looks like a staff, and his costume is incredibly detailed, including a long strip of material with the words 草泥马 (grass mud horse) written on it. Ai is a playful celestial of subversion. The twelve animals of the zodiac are represented by their heads in orange, yellow, and red; bursts of red flames fill out the black interior of the rectangle that frames Ai and the animal heads within a shining gold background with the title Zodiac at the top and “A Graphic Memoir Ai Weiwei” at the bottom. Gianluca Costantini, the illustrator, should be applauded for the detail and delicacy of his linework. The cover reaches into Chinese popular art, both the “little person books” (小人书)—those comic books popular during Ai’s (and entire generations’) youth—and premodern woodblock prints of book illustrations and New Year pictures.

Zodiac is labeled a “graphic memoir,” with Ai Weiwei credited as the main author (or subject) along with two Italian collaborators, Elettra Stamboulis, an art curator and comics writer, and Gianluca Costantini, a comics artist. The book is divided into twelve sections corresponding to the animals of the Chinese zodiac, which, as I discuss later, Ai had made the focus of a 2013 artwork. The memoir is less of a simple narrative and more a series of vignettes grouped around their respective zodiac symbols. Right from the first animal in the zodiac series, “Mouse” 鼠, there is a certain playfulness.

The first four chapters of Zodiac are presented as a dialogue between Ai Weiwei and his son. As Ai explains to his son, the cat is not included in the zodiac, because the mouse betrayed his friend the cat to win a race put on by the Jade Emperor (5-8). But the cat remained free. Zodiac has the feeling of political parables, where Chinese culture is presented as a series of fairy tales systematized in a twelve-part structure. This is a rich and multilayered comic book. Comics use text and image to narrate a story. They anchor themselves in various ways—in the story they are recounting and in the context of other works in the medium. Once they are produced, comics form a series with intertextual relations to other works in the same medium.

Figure 2

In the section centered on the Rabbit 兔 that includes a discussion of the German artist Joseph Beuys as well as the cartoon characters Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, Ai says to his son: “I should talk about art with you more often” (48, bottom right panel).

In the “Dragon” 龙 chapter, Ai introduces the reader to Uli Sig, a Swiss businessman and former Swiss ambassador to China, and a foremost collector of contemporary Chinese art. He and Ai rummage around a shop in search of a dragon kite. Then, when Ai tries to fly the kite near Tiananmen, or the Forbidden City (it is possible the artist used photos as models), you see it coming: Tiananmen is not for flying kites.

In Zodiac, Ai also has conversations with his mother and his partner. In “Snake” 蛇, Ai and his mother discuss the zodiac which, she notes, farmers would use to choose their wives. Ai and his mother recount the White Snake Legend, with an aside to Mao as a “false monk that white snake Mao Zedong” (75, bottom left panel) (fig. 2).

Figure 3

When I first heard Ai Weiwei was going to publish a “graphic” memoir, I thought: how interesting it would be to see Ai Weiwei’s illustrations. Instead, he enlisted a writer and an artist of comic books to tell his story. Telling his story in a nostalgic medium—a medium that conjures up his youth—was a significant choice to retell a story some of us may already know the basic trajectory of. After the Cultural Revolution, Ai Weiwei was assigned to the animation division of the Beijing Film Academy. Maybe it is just my own scholarly nerdiness, but I would be curious to know if Ai ever produced animated film. Maybe this comic book is a prelude?

In the “Tiger” 虎 section, a journalist makes an appearance, taking notes on Ai’s narrative (could it be the writer Stamboulis in 33, top left and middle left, and on 36, bottom right?) up to the moment he is arrested in Beijing in 2011. In addition to introducing Beuys and Sig, this graphic memoir is a retelling of Ai’s career inside and outside of the PRC. The “Tiger” section focuses on Liu Xiaobo 刘小波and his wife Liu Xia 刘霞. The realistic line figures are remarkable, and my sense is that the artist drew them from photographic sources. Costantini’s line work is almost hallucinatory at times: the black and white line images seem to glow. But the large panel at the top of page 42 is a realistic miniature framing of the 1989 demonstrations (fig. 3). To the left are young PLA soldiers, and to the right young students. The moment captures as much about a generation as it does about the demonstrations. I leave it up to someone else to trace the source image.

In some ways, Zodiac is a “best of” Ai Weiwei. We get a laconic and allegorical curation of his own work. The Zodiac itself references a work by Ai Weiwei, an installation mounted in Cleveland in 2013-14 that the museum website describes as follows: “While the installation is meant to be playful and appealing to a broad audience, Ai Weiwei’s notorious passion for engaging China’s political and cultural history in sometimes controversial ways lurks just below the surface.”[5] Sunflower seeds, porcelain replicas of which Ai used in a 2010 installation, appear as part of the story. A large rectangular panel graces the “Mouse” section. Surrounded by sunflower seeds, the animal that “did whatever it could to arrive first” and “will do whatever possible to maintain its position” is surrounded by seeds (8, top panel). In another full page panel, Ai holds up both hands filled with sunflower seeds and says: “Seeing all those people in that large room, lying on those seeds created by Chinese workers, reminds us that we are unique. But we are also fragile” (25). It reminds me of something my teachers used to tell us in school—that we were like snowflakes, and every snowflake is different. I suppose this is a half empty, half full kind of thing, but even though they appear different, snowflakes share the same number of sides: six. So perhaps in difference there is similarity?

Zodiac is very much a record of political life in late twentieth century PRC history. How many narratives—literary, filmic, and artistic—have we seen of this period? In coincidental ways, Ai Weiwei’s experiences during the Mao era are similar to Xi Jinping’s: Ai lived with his father in a hole in the desert in Xinjiang, Xi Jinping lived by himself in a cave in Shaanxi. Both lived through the Cultural Revolution with fathers who were condemned by the state. Both were in their twenties during the 1980s. In a discussion with his brother in the Monkey 猴 section, Ai notes how much he enjoyed coming home in 1993. The discussion is accompanied by images of the exiled poet Bei Dao 北岛, the magazine Today 今天, and the “Stars” exhibit held in the garden of the China Art Gallery in Beijing in 1979. Then Ai declares that “Art is like Wukong.” The Monkey King transforms himself, but he is impatient (118-120). And the Monkey King is consistently suppressed and repressed; his potential is great, but for the Monk who controls his actions by reciting Buddhist sutras, Sun Wukong is an instrument to be controlled. Monkey King is better as a metaphor, but as an analogy he gets a bit sticky.

Figure 4

Maybe it’s just my imagination, but the images of Mao in Zodiac all seem to be fading, as if they were old fading photos. The only other leader to be clearly identifiable in the text is Xi Jinping who becomes a cigarette smoking interrogator (36, middle right and bottom left panel) (fig. 4). These images are preceded by screen grabs from “Dumbass” 傻伯夷, one of the videos for Divine Comedy 神曲, an EP Ai did with Zuoxiao Zuzhou 左小祖咒 in 2013 (see 34-35, and 161 for an illustration of the cover thumbnail). The EP is an excellent and funny take on an individual’s relationship to the power of the state. The photos and screen grabs from photos and videos from this EP make for images that are at once dramatic and familiar.

A great part of the interest with Zodiac is Ai Weiwei’s implicit commentary on his art. Ai is such a fixture in contemporary art I think he has gone far beyond his role as a Chinese dissident to become a global activist. Just a search of Ai Weiwei on YouTube will yield a large number of interviews with Ai intervening on any number of topics and political campaigns. But activism, no less than art, can be valued and interpreted in many different ways. The “poetry expresses desire” 诗言志tradition places a lot of stress on the language employed by a person expressing a particular sentiment to an audience with a shared language and tradition. Contemporary avant-garde art still remains somewhat rarefied, but Ai Weiwei seems to have gone out of his way to publicize his work and open up contemporary art to wider audiences. Perhaps his inability to exhibit in the PRC is part of the impetus for this. But whatever the case, I find a couple of backstories interesting, even though he doesn’t discuss them in Zodiac.

Among the most well-known photos of Ai Weiwei are the three of him dropping a Han dynasty vase. The three photos are represented in Zodiac in one panel with a rabbit (53, lower panel). The smashed vase was an installation piece and the photos are a record of a performance. Ai employed vases in other exhibits. For example, he dipped Han vases in auto paint. For an exhibit that travelled to Miami in 2013, he also dipped Neolithic vases in colored paint. There was some controversy around this exhibit when a Dominican artist named Maximo Caminero smashed one of the vases in protest. In Caminero’s words, he did it “for all the local artists in Miami that have never been shown in museums here.” Ai’s reply is rather interesting: “‘The argument does not support the act, . . . It doesn’t sound right. His argument doesn’t make much sense. If he really had a point, he should choose another way, because this will bring him trouble to destroy property that does not belong to him.’” And the property value was not insignificant: either one million dollars, “a figure the museum said was provided by the police as an estimate based on previous appraisals of similar works by Mr. Ai,” or $156,325 “that included buyer’s premium,” for a similar work entitled “Group of 9 Colored Vases,” consisting of Neolithic vases painted by Mr. Ai in 2007, which sold at Sotheby’s in London in 2012.[6] The whole affair could have been a moment for interrogation; instead, it is an example of one cosmopolitan artist’s reply to the global flows of legitimation, inclusion, and exclusion in art markets and museums. Ai’s reading places the local protesting artist in a holding cell, so to speak, while the art is reduced to some kind of insurance claim.

Ai is a “Rooster” 鸡. The “Rooster” section is partly devoted to the Ordos 100 project in which Ai invited 100 architects from 27 countries to each build a 1000-square meter villa in a new urban area near the city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia (130). In Zodiac, Ai notes that his ideas about architecture are inspired by Wittgenstein. He also tells us that “Ordos” was the place where Genghis Khan was buried. But Ordos 100 seems like an elaborate prank. None of the structures were ever completed. Ai produced a documentary that follows the arrival of the architects, who appear to be enthusiastically starting out on a great adventure. At about minute 02:30, Ai seems to ambush a young white guy with a ponytail who periodically nods and turns to look at the camera. Ai says: “We’re not interested in architecture; we are more interested in human conceptual change . . . We’re talking about a possibility rather than a fixed solid product.”[7] The whole exchange has a feel similar to recent spiels about the way Crypto was going to change the world for the better. Begun at the start of the great recession in 2008, there’s a whiff of trickster in this project. The artist as social engineer.

In the “Ox” 牛 section, Ai’s wife Lu Qing 路青 asks him: “You like speaking in metaphors, but are you sure it is good to speak so deeply?” To which Ai replies: “Maybe on the contrary, we must not be scared of too much truth” (18, top left and right panels). Which launches the comic into a series of bovine associations, perhaps a Lu Xunist/Maoist appeal to the symbolism of the ox, or to the myth of the Weaver Girl and the Oxherd. What do these associations have to do with truth? They aren’t so much metaphors as folk sayings and folktales. Moments like this reveal as much about the chosen medium of the comic book as the artist. Art is determined by the medium it finds itself within. Zodiac the comic book is at times sentimental, didactic, and nostalgic for a past anchored in folk stories and images.

Figure 5

Ai says “I took many pictures of Ginsberg, but mostly of my daily life” (103, bottom panel). Ai was fond of the painter Andy Warhol (1928-1987), but his use of reportage and political activism may be closer to the poet Alan Ginsberg (1926-1927). One mention in passing I found very curious. In the “Dog” 狗 section, Ai mentions the artist Tehching Hsieh 謝德慶 (1950-), a Taiwanese performance artist who was in New York at the same time as Ai. Ai says of Hsieh that he “was a brave artist. He didn’t know how to find his way to art. And he decided that he was living in his art” (fig. 5). Costantini illustrates Hsieh and Montano’s Art/Life One Year Performance. Ai mentions that Tehching’s dog urinated on his painting, “So I discovered that painting was not my way” (143). This suggestion of randomness is the diametrical opposite of Hsieh’s work, which is much less known than Ai’s but is perhaps even more political. Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece), which consists of the artist punching into a time clock and photographing himself every hour for one year, was prophetic of a newly emergent economy of hyper-rationalization that will take hold, first in Taiwan, and then in China, in both cases through manufacturing. Hsieh, either deliberately or by coincidence records the mobilization of labor for one calendar year. The effacement of the individual is recorded twice, once by the punch-card, and once with a medium camera shot that shows him standing beside the punch clock.

I enjoyed this graphic memoir very much. Zodiac lays out a narrative that includes people, historic moments, and especially art works by Ai Weiwei himself. It functions like a comic book catalogue raisonnée albeit with the heavy influence of the artist himself. With the addition of the graphic memoir Zodiac, like a revolutionary era story of liberation told in film, art, photography, narrative, and comics, the story of the Ai Weiwei personality has now manifested itself in several media.

Sean Macdonald
Huron University College


[1] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space. Tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991, 271.

[2] Gregory B. Lee, China’s Lost Decade, Cultural Politics and Poetics, 1978-1990 in Place of History. Brookline Mass.: Zephyr Press, 2012, 194.

[3] See Yuehping Yen, Calligraphy and Power in Contemporary Chinese Society. Abingdon, UK: Taylor and Francis, 2005, 57-80.  

[4] Xiaobing Tang, Visual Culture in Contemporary China: Paradigms and Shifts. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2015, 212.

[5]  From the Cleveland Museum blurb, see “Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” (July 24, 2013–March 16, 2014).

[6] For the quotes here, see Nick Madigan, “Ai Weiwei Vase Is Destroyed by Protester at Miami Museum.” The New York Times (Feb. 18, 2014).

[7] Vancouver Biennale, Ai Weiwei Studio, Ordos 100 《鄂尔多斯100》. Uploaded November 12, 2014. (accessed March 6, 2024).

[8] Doryun Chong and Cosmin Costinas, Taiping Tianguo: A History of Possible Encounters: Ai Weiwei, Frog King Kwok, Tehching Hsieh, and Martin Wong in New York. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015, 70-71.

China / Zodiac / United States / Ai Weiwei

Political Comics