The Contemporary Austin’s Museum Without Walls program recently brought two installations by major artist Ai Weiwei to the city. One, installed at the Waller Delta, is a collaboration with the Waller Creek Conservancy, another player in Austin’s public art scene thanks to its annual Creek Show installation. The second is at Laguna Gloria’s Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park.
On display at the Waller Delta is Ai’s 2014 work “Forever Bicycles.” A striking structure composed of 1,200 shining silver bicycles, the installation is kinetic in person, and even more so in pictures. During the artist’s childhood, Forever-branded bicycles were a mass-produced status symbol. Despite being a recreation of a previous work, each iteration of Forever Bicycles is site-specific. From one angle, the work frames a crane working behind it, capturing the current atmosphere of Austin. The work captures the material components of an expanding city and the things that are left behind.
A quieter work, Ai’s 2015 “Iron Tree Trunk” sits in a pastoral corner of the Laguna Gloria Sculpture Park. The work stands in enlightening contrast to Forever Bicycles, creating something natural from unnatural materials. Away from the frenetic pace of downtown, the trunk could almost be part of the landscape. It is only on closer inspection that its composition becomes clear. Rust gives the work its lifelike appearance, its form developed from a mold. Another work where Ai draws inspiration from a distinct memory, it is inspired by locals in Jingdezhen who sell dry wood and tree trunks. Contrasted with the commoditization of the bicycles, the trunk takes on new significance.
Both works feel particularly appropriate for today’s Austin, a city staring down increasing expansion and gentrification. Even the acquisition of works by one of today’s best-known artists plays into the narrative of Austin as cutting-edge destination. Recently declared by UNESCO as a City of Media Arts, Austin seems to be seeking artistic recognition on a larger stage than has previously been available to the city. Ai’s work resonates with this even as it critiques.
The sculptures will remain on display on a long-term basis. Ai will also curate a film series with the Austin Film Society in November.