In 2010, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei famously filled London’s Tate Modern with a hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds. Each was hand-painted by an artisan, and the work was an oblique reference to old propaganda images depicting the Chinese population as the sunflowers of Chairman Mao. Much of Ai’s subsequent work addresses the sometimes-uneasy interplay between the individual and the rest of Chinese society, making the point that China’s varied and kaleidoscopic culture is not a monolith. It’s a theme addressed in Iron Tree, his most complex outdoor sculpture to date.
Iron Tree, one in a series of tree sculptures begun in 2009, has just been installed and dedicated at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. In indoor galleries (some versions were exhibited in Berlin in 2011), the trees overwhelm the space. But this vast, 160 acre setting supplies ample breathing room. Iron Tree is tucked away in a lightly forested glen, and initially seems to blend with its surroundings.
Upon closer inspection, the 22-foot-tall tree, comprised of nearly a hundred castings, reveals itself to be a disjointed jumble of disparate parts, clumsily affixed together by conspicuously large stainless steel bolts. Earlier versions of the series were made from real fallen limbs. Iron Tree derives from the wood sold by street vendors in Jingdezhen, where Chinese porcelain has its origins (and, incidentally, where Ai found the 1,600 artisans to help paint his Sunflower Seeds).
Joseph Becherer, the garden’s vice president and chief curator, explains, “Though the sculpture looks like a tree from a distance, up close you realize it is many unique elements joined together. For the artist it is a way to address individuality within a larger culture or globalism in general. Parts of a whole often fit awkwardly together but they unify nonetheless.”
Iron Tree resonates with many of Ai’s works that toured America in last year’s massive retrospective According to What?, particularly his Map of China, a version of which was exhibited alongside Iron Tree last year at England’s Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Map of China, using traditional Chinese wood crafting techniques, seamlessly combines many separate wooden elements salvaged from destroyed Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) temples.
But unlike Map of China or his exquisite re-workings of antique wooden furniture, Iron Tree seems to relish in the disparity of its parts. With limbs awkwardly fixed together with oversize bolts, it looks like a tree that Dr. Frankenstein built.
But a visibly fractured whole works as an eloquent metaphor, and one that certainly reaches beyond China’s boarders. The concept behind Iron Tree applies equally well to the United States, the United Nations, and a myriad of other national and political bodies. Indeed, one of the many admirable qualities of Ai Weiwei is that while his body of work is emphatically Chinese, his art has an uncanny ability to speak a universal language.
Explore other highlights of the surprisingly vast and varied permanent collection of Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park here.