Two profound long-term loans by the legendary Chinese artist signify a cultural shift for a city on the verge of a major transformation, with the Waller Creek Conservancy and The Contemporary Austin leading the charge.
Aglimmering, monumental sculptural installation of more than 1,200 stainless steel bicycles now perches on a pocket of parkland where Waller Creek meets Lady Bird Lake. The work, "Forever Bicycles," is by Ai Weiwei, the renowned Chinese artist and activist, admired for the seamless manner in which he’s merged his prolific art-making with his human-rights activism.
Standing above Austin’s popular Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail, the tightly ordered and labyrinthine sculpture is visually kinetic, the gleaming arrangement seemingly in motion. "Forever Bicycles" is one of two large-scale installations that Ai sent to Austin as part of a long-term loan, with a grand public unveiling in early June.
His other piece, "Iron Tree Trunk," now resides at The Contemporary Austin’s Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria. Massive yet subtle, the 15-foot sculpture resembles a hollowed-out tree trunk. Placed among real trees near Laguna Gloria’s lagoon, "Iron Tree Trunk" could easily be mistaken for a part of the natural landscape.
The remarkable loans are the culmination of an exceptional partnership formed just a year ago between the Contemporary and the Waller Creek Conservancy, the private nonprofit spearheading a design-driven transformation of the 1.5-mile stretch of Waller Creek through Austin’s urban core, from Lady Bird Lake to the University of Texas. The pair of sculptures by one of the world’s most important cultural influencers represents a transformative moment for the city. It puts Austin on trend with urban centers around the world using public art in profound ways.
"As a city grows, more attention is focused on the in-between spaces—the parks, the urban landscape, the public spaces," says Peter Mullan, Waller Creek Conservancy CEO. "Art can serve as the catalyst to reshape the physical and social character of a city’s in-between spaces. Public art can delightfully disrupt your expectation of a place."
"Many people in Austin still have no idea where Waller Creek is. It’s invisible, indistinct," observes Mullan. "It’s a huge asset for the city, but it needs to be seen."
Mullan is not new to massive urban challenges. Before coming to Austin, he spent 10 years leading the Friends of the High Line, the organization responsible for the innovative transformation of an abandoned elevated railroad track on Manhattan’s West Side into what is now one of the nation’s most celebrated parks and urban attractions.
The flood-prone Waller Creek—which cuts a prominent swath through downtown’s eastern edge—has vexed civic leaders throughout Austin’s history. But now, after years of effort, the city this year finished a massive tunnel that captures and redirects flood waters from the creek. When it’s not raining, the tunnel diverts water from Lady Bird Lake into the creek to maintain a controlled level of water, even during spells of drought. Revitalizing the creek’s ecology, Mullan says, will set the stage for the 1.5-mile long urban riparian zone of interconnected trails, playgrounds, and art-filled parks.
"Essentially, we’re revitalizing a natural corridor in the city—making an ecological intervention—and then creating a cultural overlay or making a cultural intervention on top of the ecological one," Mullan says.
The first part of that cultural overlay will be an architecturally stunning outdoor performance venue in Waterloo Park, the largest park along Waller Creek. In February, the Moody Foundation donated $15 million to fund the Moody Amphitheatre, capable of hosting up to 6,000 on its Great Lawn. Ground breaks on the Moody Amphitheatre this fall with a projected opening in 2019.
"Art and culture are crucial to the vision of Waller Creek," says Mullan. "And the amphitheater will be a lively confluence of that."
As politically powerful and timely as his artwork is, Ai is typically reticent when it comes to offering explanations about his work. When asked via email about his two Austin pieces, the 60-year-old answers Austin Way in characteristically enigmatic fashion. "In the current condition, I think art becomes more relevant because it tells the inner truth," he writes. "It helps us better understand humanity."
Born in 1957 in Beijing, Ai was only a year old when his family was sent to a labor camp. Ai’s father, the poet Ai Qing, was critical of China’s communist government, and the family spent 16 years in exile until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Ai studied animation at the Beijing Film Academy before heading to the United States in 1981, a journey that would result in a 12-year stay. Though he made little art during his time in New York, the exposure to and study of modern Western art history proved seminal. Ai’s creative oeuvre resonates with undercurrents of Surrealist and Conceptual elements.
Back in China by 1996, Ai began not only making avant-garde art of his own, but also publishing underground books and organizing exhibits openly critical of the Chinese government. He established a singular artistic style, working with a breathtaking range of unorthodox materials while raising profound questions about democracy and human rights. He’s exhibited a map of China made of individual porcelain ornaments, each of which was painted with the Chinese characters for "free speech." Most recently he’s crafted installations from clothing left behind in refugee camps, the garments carefully washed and folded.
An early adapter to social media, Ai leveraged Twitter and other platforms to disseminate his politically motivated messages about freedom of speech and human rights despite harassment by the Chinese government. Arrested by authorities in 2011 on drummed-up charges, Ai was jailed incommunicado for 81 days and had his passport confiscated. Reaction to Ai’s arrest ricocheted worldwide, sparking protests and actions by museums and human rights advocates. It wasn’t until 2015 that officials returned Ai’s passport and he was again free to leave China. He now principally resides in Berlin.
"Ai’s beautiful and outspoken conceptual work is fused to his own-larger-than life persona," says Louis Grachos, director of the Contemporary. "He’s become one of the most important artists working today, and his relevance is only deepening, given the current political climate throughout the world."
"Forever Bicycles" is part of a series Ai started in 2003 with iterations of bicycle sculptures exhibited in cities around the world. The Forever brand bicycle was once ubiquitous on Beijing’s streets—not just a means of transportation during a time when few private citizens owned cars, but a coveted luxury item. Ai never had a Forever bicycle. Now, stripped of their function and assembled as a sculpture, the bicycles at once reflect a nostalgic significance to the artist and form a potent symbol of today’s post-automobile urban trend.
Visually quieter, "Iron Tree Trunk" is likewise part of a series, inspired by a Chinese tradition of displaying dried trunks and branches as aesthetic objects. "Together, these two installations give Austin an uncommon experience of Ai Weiwei’s work," says Grachos. "At Waller Creek we have a bigger spectacle—"Forever Bicycle" is a bold gesture. And at Laguna Gloria, people can experience something more subtle and contemplative with 'Iron Tree Trunk.'
"In the current condition, I think art becomes more relevant because it tells the inner truth," artist Ai Weiwei tells Austin Way. Now on display where Waller Creek meets Lady Bird Lake, “Forever Bicycles” is part of a series he started in 2003 with iterations of bicycle sculptures exhibited in cities around the world, including London (top and left). A more subtle work is the other piece he has loaned to Austin, “Iron Tree Trunk,” which was inspired by a Chinese tradition of displaying dried trunks and branches as aesthetic objects.
Grachos took the helm of the Contemporary in 2013 after serving for a decade as director of the renowned Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY. And he quickly identified that the game-changing possibility for the museum lay with its historic location—the bucolic 12-acre Laguna Gloria lakeside site anchored by the 1916 Driscoll Villa, former home of Texas heiress and arts patron Clara Driscoll.
The landscaped but somewhat dated grounds featured historic garden statuary and a handful of contemporary sculpture. But Grachos proposed that Laguna Gloria become a destination sculpture park—a “Museum Without Walls.” “Austin’s is a lifestyle that embraces the outdoors,” Grachos says. “It makes sense to find ways to integrate more contemporary art into the city’s urban landscape.”
Within months he realized the Contemporary’s redirection. In mid-2013, the museum received a $9 million donation from the Dallas-based Betty and Edward Marcus Foundation for the creation of the Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria. Since then, the Contemporary has acquired or commissioned significant sculptures by top-tier artists including Liam Gillick, Paul McCarthy, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Tom Friedman, and the duo Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler, among others.
The vision is expanding: Currently the museum is beginning work on a master plan that will restore critical ecological features on the Laguna Gloria grounds and deftly enhance existing facilities. And, of course, make room for more art. The museum hired renowned landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand to lead the charge.
Grachos’ Museum Without Walls program is branching out, too. Already the museum has installed sculpture from its permanent collection in Perry Park, a slice of green space in West Austin. And soon more of the museum’s sculpture will take up long-term residency at Pease Park and on the grounds of the Elisabet Ney Museum.
“We’ve had such growth in the city recently that our public is more engaged with public space than ever,” Grachos says. “And having contemporary art situated in that public space makes it more accessible to everyone. People can then approach it on their own terms, at their own pace, and therefore have a deeper engagement with it.”
The public’s attitude toward contemporary art in public places has improved in the recent decade, Grachos notes. City dwellers welcome the refreshing texture that challenging art can bring to an urban space. And, he says, Ai’s “Forever Bicycles” and “Iron Tree Trunk” are not the devotional historic statuary of previous eras, but a dynamic kind of creative intervention in the public realm that sparks a civic dialogue.
Grachos adds: "We’re ready for this. Austin is ready for this."