The Contemporary Austin at Laguna Gloria
by Eli John
Photographs by David Brendan Hall
In this age of selfies, public art has proliferated in cities worldwide, but our habit of experiencing such installations through an iPhone lens often has us trivializing them simply as fun and consumable. Some artists working on a monumental scale prioritize playfulness and consumption, creating works that, although arresting, are about as profound as a Snap story. Not so for Chinese artist-cum-dissident Ai Weiwei, whose sculptures “Forever Bicycles” and “Iron Tree Trunk” are on display as part of The Contemporary Austin’s Museum Without Walls program.
Ai Weiwei combines tenets of Dada and surrealism with symbols from Chinese history and mythology to create works intricately laden with meaning, critiquing the Chinese government even as he maintains an irreverent reverence for Chinese culture and tradition. In constructing “Forever Bicycles,” he fused more than 1,200 bicycle frames into a monumental archway. The title invokes the name of a Chinese bicycle manufacturer whose mass-produced cycles nevertheless remained prohibitively expensive for much of the Chinese populace. But the work is just as much a glimmering monument to self-fueled locomotion in an age of cars.
For “Iron Tree Trunk,” he found inspiration from the villagers of a town in Jiangxi province who gather and sell tree trunks valued for their unique, gnarled shapes. Cast from the trunk of a large dead tree, the fifteen-foot sculpture mimics its arboreal counterpart. Although an artificial construction, the sculpture undergoes a natural process of decay, turning earthen orange over time.
“Forever Bicycles” is on view at the Waller Delta, next to the Waller Creek Boathouse at 74 Trinity Street. “Iron Tree Trunk” is on view at the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park at Laguna Gloria.