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 in­be­tween 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 in­be­tween 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.’”


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.”


One of two works by Ai Wei­wei now on dis­play in Austin is “Iron Tree Trunk,” shown here in a pre­vi­ous ex­hibit. As of early June, the 15-foot sculp­ture lives at The Con­tem­po­rary Austin’s Mar­cus Sculp­ture Park at La­guna Glo­ria, where it sits among the...

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