New York's art community and Mayor Michael Bloomberg honored detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on Wednesday, unveiling his giant bronze sculpture installation even as he remains imprisoned in his homeland amid a recent crackdown on dissent.
"Artists risk everything to create," Bloomberg said, standing before the 12 animal heads rising from Manhattan's Pulitzer Fountain. "But artists like Ai Weiwei, who come from places that do not value and protect free speech, risk even more than that."
The mayor said Ai's willingness to take risks speaks to his courage, "but also to the indomitable desire for freedom that is inside every human being."
Hundreds of lawyers, activists, and other intellectuals in China have disappeared or been questioned or detained by authorities in recent weeks. Ai was detained April 3. China's Foreign Ministry says he is under investigation for economic crimes. Ai's sister says he is being punished for speaking out about the communist leadership and social problems.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month called for his release. A call to the Chinese consulate seeking comment Wednesday was not immediately returned.
In New York, Ai's first major public sculpture installation, called "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads," features each of the animals of the Chinese zodiac _ several of them with playful expressions. Each animal head weighs about 800 pounds, measures roughly 3-by-4 feet and sits atop a narrow bronze column.
Since the outspoken artist could not attend the opening, a dozen members of the city arts community instead read some of his previous remarks. Artist Julian Schnabel, poet Yusef Komunyakaa and choreographer Bill T. Jones were among them.
"Without freedom of speech, there is no modern world, just a barbaric one," Ai said in a quote read by Guggenheim Museum curator Alexandra Munroe.
Ai attended New York's Parsons School of Design and lived in the city for more than a decade. He has said the zodiac piece is a perfect fit for New York because of the city's diversity and the artwork's appeal to both children and adults.
New York City was the first stop on a six-city tour of the artwork. The piece will be in place at the southeast corner of Central Park until July 15. After that, it will be featured in London, Los Angeles, Houston, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.