Meijer Gardens adds work by artist-activist Ai Weiwei

David Runk
Associated Press

A large iron sculpture by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei that’s designed to prompt thoughts about how different people and cultures come together has been acquired by Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, the organization announced Wednesday.

Made of 99 iron pieces, the reddish sculpture called “Iron Tree” looks like a tree without leaves, but oversize stainless steel bolts that hold it together give it a mechanical, somewhat awkward appearance. A mold for each piece was made from branches and other wood that the artist found being sold in southern China, said Joseph Becherer, vice president and chief curator at Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids.

“Before there was an ‘Iron Tree’ there was a wooden tree and each piece of wood was from a different tree,” Becherer said in a telephone interview.

Ai, a sculptor, author and installation artist whose work is well-known internationally, isn’t allowed to travel outside of China. He spent nearly three months in prison in China in 2011 and last year directed the transformation of the former island prison of Alcatraz into a tribute to the world’s political prisoners. With “Iron Tree,” Becherer said the more than 22-foot-tall sculpture’s size and detail help make it compelling.

“From a distance it registers as a tree, but when you get up close you realize that it’s composed of all these different parts,” Becherer said.

Meijer Gardens worked with Ai and his Beijing studio and foundry to bring the sculpture to western Michigan, and Becherer said the organization consulted closely with him on how to display the sculpture and landscape the site. The acquisition was supported by Fred and Lena Meijer.

A dedication ceremony is planned April 20 as part of events marking Meijer Gardens’ 20th anniversary. After that, Becherer plans a lecture about Ai.

The acquisition and dedication are part of a series of events planned this year at the gardens and sculpture park.

“Splendors of Shiga: Treasures from Japan” is on display ahead of the June opening of a new Japanese garden. The exhibition features more than 75 works of art, most of which have never been displayed outside Japan. The Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden is a $22 million project that includes Zen-style, moss and bonsai gardens, as well as bridges, waterfalls and a tea house.