This two-site exhibition is part of The Contemporary Austin’s Museum Without Walls program, which brings works of art out into the community, and also represents the museum’s second public art collaboration with Waller Creek Conservancy.
Perhaps no artist has merged art and activism on a global scale more successfully than Ai Weiwei (Chinese, born 1957 in Beijing). What some might refer to as an art-as-life practitioner—his life is his work and vice versa—today Ai Weiwei approaches mythology through a lifetime of political activism and government dissent combined with prolific art making and a mastery of twenty-first-century communication. The artist’s father, the lauded poet Ai Qing, was the target of widespread government suppression of radical intellectuals leading up to and during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Along with his wife, the poet Gao Ying, and young child, Ai Qing was sent to labor in exile in remote areas of Manchuria, the western region of Xinjiang, and finally to the Gobi Desert in China, where Ai Weiwei spent his childhood.1 Today, Ai’s gestures—not only via art objects, but through his actions, performative interventions, collaborations, writings, films, and spoken words—continue this legacy, provoking the oppressive regime in China by uncovering truths about daily life whose existence questions and threatens the stability of government control.
While the family returned to Beijing in 1976, Ai Weiwei retained his radical roots, and in 1983 he moved to New York City in part to pursue creative freedom and escape the artistic censorship that had become endemic to China. It was here that the artist would encounter contemporary Western art historical influences, most notably the French artist Marcel Duchamp. Beginning in 1913, Duchamp, the Dadaist and ostensible grandfather of Conceptual art, pioneered the practice of decommissioning utilitarian items from the world by turning them into so-called art objects. He referred to these works as assisted or pure “readymades,” including fastening a spinning bicycle wheel on a kitchen stool (assisted), placing a urinal on a pedestal (pure), or exhibiting a bottle rack as is (pure). As Ai stated, “I think Duchamp is the most, if not the only, influential figure in my so-called art practice.”2 Early Ai works such as Hanging Man, 1985, a sculpture made from a coat hanger, as well as recent works including Forever Bicycles, 2014, nod to Duchampian themes. Related components of Surrealism, Dada, and Conceptual and Minimal art also appear as undercurrents throughout his work.
While Ai’s oeuvre resonates with these Western movements, without question the art historical, cultural, and political influences of China remain the most prevalent topics. The artist made minimal amounts of work during his decade in New York, a time in which he “just wandered around,”3 without gallery representation and rarely exhibiting; but in 1993 Ai returned to Beijing, where he began making art in earnest. Since then, the artist has made conceptual and subversive work ranging broadly from referencing the voyeuristic government’s ubiquitous use of surveillance cameras, commemorating the number of children dead from a massive Sichuan earthquake, and various iterations of the artist giving the middle finger in photography and sculpture to the destruction of ancient Chinese urns and other historical objects as a philosophical statement on value. Concurrently, the artist has mastered the Internet and social media for expedient and widespread dissemination of information as a means to communicate his politically and socially motivated messages and to mobilize massive numbers of individuals, groups, and initiatives in a short amount of time—despite, or in some cases because of, the Chinese government’s repeated attempts to thwart him. In recent years, Ai entered into a proverbial and public bullfight with the horns of Chinese government that culminated in his arrest by Chinese authorities in 2011 and the confiscation of his passport, followed by an eighty-one-day incarceration.
Although abbreviated, this biographical history provides the context for this two-part installation of Ai Weiwei’s works as part of The Contemporary Austin’s Museum Without Walls program—an initiative that extends the museum’s collection and programming out into the community via partnering with other parks and organizations—and the museum’s ongoing collaboration with Waller Creek Conservancy. Two major works by the artist are featured: Forever Bicycles, 2014, and Iron Tree Trunk, 2015, on long-term view at the Waller Creek Delta and the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria, respectively. As an additional component of the exhibition, the museum will be partnering with the Austin Film Society on a film series curated by the artist in November 2017.
The first of these two works, Forever Bicycles, 2014, located at the Waller Creek Delta, consists of over 1,200 bicycles transformed into a playful, spectacular monolith of a sculpture. In characteristic fashion, the artist decommissions and recontextualizes a functional everyday object: the bicycle. The title, Forever Bicycles, alludes to the Forever brand (Yongjiu)—a company based in Shanghai whose mass-produced bicycles flooded the streets of China during the artist’s childhood yet remained financially out of reach for many—but also suggests a globally utilitarian form of transport now disappearing as car culture becomes predominant. The conceptual premise of this series consists of several to thousands of bicycles assembled into a composition, typically with an archway underneath for viewers to pass through. The work has existed in many iterations over time, each version site-specific to its location through the number of bicycles, positioning, and formation. While static, the bicycles together become a vertiginous structure of steel, light, and shadow, rendering the “forever” in the title a metaphor for meaning beyond the brand and encapsulating the optical effect when the viewer looks up into a seemingly infinite puzzle of wheels, frames, and spokes with the sky as backdrop.
The second work, Iron Tree Trunk, 2015, located at The Contemporary Austin’s Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria, continues Ai’s interest in natural objects with a fifteen-foot-high replica of a dead tree trunk. Inspired by his visit to the town of Jingdezhen in the northeastern Jiangxi province, where the artist witnessed locals collecting and selling dry wood and tree trunks for their unique shape and aesthetic, in 2009 Ai began a series of large-scale works based on the elegant and twisting forms of dead tree trunks that were gathered from the mountains. In several iterations, he combined parts from different trees to make a singular whole, intentionally leaving evidence of their Frankenstein-like origins, as in the appearance of bolts and screws that held the elements together. Iron Tree Trunk, cast from the found remains of a massive tree, departs from this assemblage tactic but retains its terrestrial mystique: an elegant, twisting monolith in the burnt orange characteristic of oxidized iron rusting over time, evoking both nature and industrialization.