‘Iron Tree’ by Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei’s ‘Iron Tree’ was made available on permanent display at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in 2015, commemorating the organization’s 20th anniversary through the generosity of Fred and Lena Meijer. 



Photo by Dean Van Dis

As a sculptor, author, and installation artist, Ai Weiwei is one of the most versatile and respected artists in Contemporary art. Although stripped of his passport and confined to limited travel only within China, his work has been exhibited across the globe to widespread acclaim. As an artist, his work ranges from single objects to large installations to historic collaborations resulting in architectural projects like the Beijing National Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest” for the 2008 Olympics. As an activist, he has been a champion of free speech and human rights around the world, and, specifically, highly critical of the Chinese government leading to his imprisonment and house arrest.

Standing at more than 22 feet tall and measuring more than 22 feet across, Iron Tree, 2013, is the artist’s largest and most complex outdoor sculpture to date. Meijer Gardens worked in collaboration with the artist, his Beijing studio and foundry, and London gallery to bring this colossal work to Meijer Gardens.

Held together with oversize stainless steel bolts, Iron Tree is composed of 99 unique iron pieces cast from individual tree elements (branches, trunks, roots) from different species collected in the mountainous areas of southern China. From a distance, the sculpture registers as a living tree in form, but as one approaches the work, the details in the diversity of shapes, exaggeration of reality and awkwardness in using bolts in the permanent assembly are clearly understood. As with many of Weiwei’s projects, copying and assemblage play a significant role in communicating ideas. Here, the very notion of bringing together unrelated parts from different areas to become a new unit becomes a metaphor for the complexities and complications of 21st century globalism.

Since 2009, Weiwei has created a series of large wooden sculptures utilizing elements from cut trees sold in the markets of Jingdezhen, China. These elements are sold by local vendors and appreciated for their interesting shapes in the tradition of Chinese scholar’s rocks. Methods of cutting and interlocking the wood elements are based on historic Chinese practices for temple construction. Innovatively, the artist brought together 99 disparate elements, had them cast individually in iron and uniquely conjoined them through a complex bolting system, but connections to traditional Chinese culture remains intact. Iron Tree is the transformed climax of that series.

Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State


Ai Weiwei. Taifeng, 2015. Bamboo and silk. Photo courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

Seemingly contrasting themes of tradition and modernity are critical to the work of Ai Weiwei. The Chinese-born artist and activist is internationally heralded as one of the most important cultural figures of our time. He champions free speech and global human rights through his sculpture, installations, film, photography—and his widely followed social media presence. In the last year alone, he has mounted critically acclaimed exhibitions in London, Helsinki, Paris, Melbourne, Florence and New York. His work, through a neverending variety of materials and forms, communicates important concepts about his life, his homeland and the world.

Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State marks the artist’s first exhibition at a botanical garden and sculpture park anywhere in the world, and his premier solo presentation in the upper Midwest. Working with both the sculpture and horticulture departments at Meijer Gardens over the last two years, Ai Weiwei has carefully developed a large-scale exhibition intended to share profound ideas through innovative artwork. In addition to four sculpture galleries, the artist will use four conservatories and numerous public areas of the building. Combined, it’s an exhibition of unprecedented scope, presenting both iconic and recently created work.

The title of the exhibition, Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State, underscores the relationship between artist and institution. It began in 2014 with the acquisition of the colossal sculpture Iron Tree, a gift of Fred and Lena Meijer. Further, it calls attention to the unique circumstances in the artist’s generous decision to exhibit at an organization whose mission is dually focused on horticulture and sculpture. Ai Weiwei and his studio teams in Beijing and Berlin have worked diligently and sensitively to engage with the whole of Meijer Gardens.

The word “natural” sheds light on numerous instances in which the artist will use imagery from the natural world to introduce persuasive ideas and concerns. From meticulously rendered flowers to legions of painstakingly crafted river crabs, references to nature are employed to engage the viewer, leading them to consider important concepts. Although well known for his use of found objects, the word “natural” also calls attention to Ai Weiwei’s thoughtful use of natural materials, from ceramics and silk to bamboo and wood. Often these natural materials are transformed, following time-honored Chinese craft traditions.

Likewise, the word “state” suggests multiple, often interrelated levels of meaning. On the one hand, it may convey a state of being for both a found object or material that the artist uses in a new and innovative way. For example, an ancient urn or a LEGO brick exists in a specific state when the artist encountered them, but he often re-employs them in a new manner to guide and communicate with his audience. A state of being has a human side as well, thematically exploring aspects of humanity across the globe as they are frequently marked by inequality and injustice. These are states of being that the artist feels compelled to call out in order to better the lives of women, men and children everywhere.

Certainly the notion of state refers to political systems that Ai Weiwei has bravely challenged for the betterment of humanity in his native China, but also in the Middle East, Europe and Africa, where he has traveled extensively in recent years. “Today the whole world is still struggling for freedom,” says the artist. “In such a situation, only art can reveal the deep inner voice of every individual with no concern for political borders, nationality, race or religion.”

Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State explores several important themes across the artist’s repertoire. Among the most widespread and engaging are those that involve his own biography. Born in Beijing in 1957, he is the son of the renowned poet Ai Qing (1910–1996). In the following year, his father was labeled an “enemy of the people” and the entire family was exiled to a re-education camp in remote northwestern China. The young Ai Weiwei spent his entire youth until the age of 19 living in the very conditions symbolic of the alienation of free speech in Maoist China. With the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the family was able to return to Beijing.

Ai Weiwei enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy in 1978 and was among the original members of the avant-garde collective known as the “Stars.” Following a brief period of political openness in China, there was a repression of expression and cultural crackdown, and the young artist left for America in 1981. After a brief period in Philadelphia, the artist lived in New York until 1993. Here, his interest in photography brought him close to the most compelling social and political issues of the day. Additionally, he was exposed to the work of three of the most important artists of the 20th century: Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Each a conceptual master, they are celebrated for the use of found objects or popular culture, greatly influencing Ai Weiwei through to the present day.

When his father fell seriously ill in 1993, Ai Weiwei returned to China. But after 12 years in the United States, he confronted a Chinese society that lacked freedom of speech and constrained fundamental human rights. He embarked on an intense period of writing and publishing, as well as organizing and presenting performances and exhibitions that examined the duality of belonging and rebellion. In 1995, the artist created Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. This triptych of large-scale photographs symbolically challenges the repressive cultural history of China in 20th cum 21st centuries through the destruction of a 2,000-year-old vase. The Meijer Gardens’ 2016 version has been recreated with innocent and globally ever-present LEGO bricks, which the artist has utilized in recent years. The use of found objects recalls the impact of Duchamp and Johns, while the use of popular culture items are a hallmark to the work of Warhol.

By the late 1990s, Ai Weiwei developed skills as an architect, eventually collaborating with the firm Herzog and DeMeuron on the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This was an extremely important period for the artist. In 2008, he was a signatory of the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights and used his acclaim and social media savvy as an activist. This period was also marked by the devastating Sichuan Province earthquake. The disaster led the artist to organize volunteers to investigate the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in collapsed buildings that were marked by substandard government construction. His involvement led to his censorship by the Chinese government, his arrest and his subsequent beating.

Illumination is perhaps among the most poignant images in the exhibition. With extraordinary presence of mind, Ai Weiwei captured a “selfie” at the time of his arrest and later tweeted it to the world. The title suggests a moment of light, enlightenment and clarity that was critical to share. In the years following, he was closely monitored by Chinese officials, climaxing in his secret arrest on April 3, 2011 and his imprisonment for 81 days. Although released, his passport was confiscated and he was unable to travel until July 2015.


Ai Weiwei. Illumination, 2009. Color photograph. Photo courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

Several of the works on display in the Meijer Gardens exhibition symbolically narrate personal events that have a broader, even universal importance. The extraordinarily crafted porcelain sculpture Bicycle Basket with Flowers in Porcelain is among them. Beginning in November 2013, Ai Weiwei placed a bouquet of fresh flowers in the basket of his bicycle outside his Beijing studio and continued this action every day until his passport was returned. A personally poetic act of symbolic beauty was a show of defiance against state repression at large. This sculpture and related photography are among those that commemorate a daily activity in more permanent terms.

However, the sculpture is equally a visual tour de force for the traditional Chinese craftsmanship of porcelain, which dates back centuries in Jingdezhen, the ancient capital of fine porcelain ware. Similarly, the breathtaking sculptural field Blossom never fails to astonish the eye, but ultimately its connection to the “Hundred Flowers Movement,” when Chinese officials briefly relaxed their stance on freedom of expression in 1956, cannot be denied. The work, like the movement itself, is beautiful but fragile.


Ai Weiwei. He Xie, 2010. Porcelain. Photo courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

The balance between visual delight or intrigue and multiple layers of meaning is what sets Ai Weiwei apart from many of his contemporaries and continually captures the attention of the international cultural community. He Xie, another major work in porcelain, astounds even the most casual viewer with hundreds of life-like river crabs. At one level, the installation refers to a critical moment when the artist was placed under house arrest while his new studio was demolished by authorities. But in an act of defiance, the artist treated 800 guests to a feast of river crabs. At a broader, cultural level, he xie means “river crab” and is a homonym for “harmony” in Chinese, a government slogan which has come to mean “censorship,” especially with regard to the internet.

The artist’s regard for traditional Chinese culture can be lyrical as well, as featured in five colossal creatures made from bamboo and silk. Each fantastical form was inspired by the artist’s adult reading of the 2000-year-old Chinese mythology, Classic of Mountains and Seas—which he was unable to read as a youth. Masterpieces like Taifeng, the god of luck, mesmerize in innovative form and scale, but also captivate through the adaptation of traditional Chinese kite making techniques from Weifang, Shandong Province.

Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State is an unprecedented exhibition in scale and meaning, with more than 30 works by one of the most distinguished artists of our time. From galleries to conservatories, from public spaces to our auditorium, the transformation of Meijer Gardens will be unlike any other project for the organization. In sharing his biography, ideas and concerns for freedom of speech and human rights, Ai Weiwei is truly a global leader. His sculptures, installations, photography and film engage, challenge, and astonish—and remind us that “Art is not an end, but a beginning.

Beverly Pepper gifts personal archive to Meijer Gardens

Meijer Gardens will become the permanent home to Beverly Pepper’s personal archive of hundreds of drawings, prints, sketchbooks and works on paper.


Untitled (Studies for Stainless Steel Sculptures)

In conjunction with the 94th birthday of iconic American sculptor Beverly Pepper, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is honored to announce the gift of Pepper’s expansive print and drawing archives to its permanent collection.  Seven decades of work are included.  The extraordinary gift from Pepper, one of the pioneering Contemporary sculptors, includes hundreds of drawings, prints, works on paper and notebooks – many containing sketches of her major sculptural endeavors. Meijer Gardens will become the repository of her two-dimensional legacy spanning her career, beginning in the 1950s.

Pepper is world-renowned for her work, which often incorporates industrial metals like iron, bronze, stainless steel and stone into sculptural of a monumental scale, but her vast drawing and print repertoire is lesser known.  Although never formally associated with any particular “school”, her concern for abstraction and commitment to materials ran parallel to David Smith with whom she was very close, developing with those of Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero and Richard Hunt.

In his recent monograph on Pepper, the noted art historian Robert Hobbs writes, “an American living mainly in Italy since the 1950s and an artist with an enviable reputation beginning in the early 1960s, Beverly Pepper, together with the two “Louises” – Bourgeois and Nevelson- heads the list of outstanding American women sculptors achieving artistic maturity in the mid-twentieth century.”

“The enormity of Beverly Pepper’s gift cannot be understated,” states Joseph Antenucci Becherer, Chief Curator and Vice President of Meijer Gardens. “Drawing has been an integral part of her artistic practice, but like her printmaking, is little known even to scholars.” Meijer Gardens engagement with Pepper began with 2009 commission of the colossus, Galileo’s Wedge – an iconic work central to the world-renowned collection.

“Over the last two decades, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park has clearly demonstrated a strong commitment to my sculpture and I am enthusiastic to now have this major body of my work there.” states Pepper. “To have in one location a space to study, compare and sequence my drawings and prints is an exceptional opportunity; I am most grateful to leave this record and have the curatorial team there looking after my work.”

In honor of her remarkable gift and life, Meijer Gardens will be hosting a retrospective exhibition of work drawn from the archives in 2018. This exhibition will run from February 2 – April 19, 2018 and will display sketches, studies, prints, experimental drawings from across her entire career. These works will be on display in the Holton, Balk, and Bank of America Galleries.  An on-line catalogue of the oeuvre is planned.

“The 2018 retrospective surveying sixty-five years of work is a rare luxury, and an unbelievable opportunity.” said Pepper.

Ai Weiwei, Conceptual Master

Essay by Joseph Antenucci Becherer, Chief Curator and Vice President


Ai Weiwei’s iconic Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is a photo triptych (three-part panel) that dates to 1995. Its daring concept, form, use of objects and actions helped establish the artist and activist in the cultural world two decades ago. His idea was to illustrate the willful destruction of China’s historic buildings and antique objects during the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao. The forms are a set of documentary-style photographs. The symbolic object was a centuries-old vessel, and the action was its intentional destruction from his very own hands. The destruction of the vessel was a symbol of the Maoist destruction of traditional culture. Ai Weiwei realized his concept in a highly unique way and captured our attention.

The seed of every great work of art, piece of literature or music is a concept or idea that the artist wants to express. The timeless struggle is how the artist will give form to the ideas. Rodin used plaster, then bronze—while di Suvero uses steel. Shakespeare and Hemingway used words and carefully crafted sentences, while composers like Mozart and Marley used specific compositions and musical instruments. It’s a difficult journey to give form to one’s ideas, but we have come to expect our greatest artists to create something unlike anything we have experienced before. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn does that.

Ai Weiwei is an artist overflowing with ideas, with concepts. There is much he wants to express regarding history and humanity, cultural and personal injustice, freedom of speech and human dignity. In fact, his ideas are so unique and important, he is most frequently viewed as a conceptual artist. To realize his concepts, he uses a broad and diverse array of objects that help convey his thinking. Ancient vessels or furniture become symbolic of Chinese history; the use of backpacks are stand-ins for children; traditionally crafted kites become symbols of freedom.

Consider for a moment Iron Tree, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park’s own colossal sculpture. Here, Ai Weiwei wanted to create a work around the concept of numerous, disparate things coming together to form a new whole—like a society that seems homogenous, but is really composed of many different types of people. Specifically, he was looking for a visual metaphor to talk about individuality and nationality forging, awkwardly so, into a new reality. The form this object took was in 99 individual tree parts, of differing species, bolted together. Yes, it is a whole, but it is ultimately composed of many parts. Ai Weiwei’s decision to cast the wooden original in iron also tells us he wants his ideas and his forms to last.

As a conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei is not a maker of objects like Rodin was in plaster and bronze or di Suvero in steel. Although he is an excellent craftsman, photographer, and architect, Ai Weiwei frequently relies on existing or found objects to express his concepts. The artist found an ancient vessel just like he found pieces of trees, which he went on to transform. Ai Weiwei is a steadfast admirer of artists like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, who realized in the early and mid-20th century that anything could become art if it translated their ideas effectively. As a result, looking carefully at the materials that give form to an artist’s ideas is one of the most important and fascinating aspects of Contemporary art.

As a conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei might also use the work of artisans known for their painted ceramics or carved marble. As one of the first major artists to fully embrace social media, his Twitter feeds and Instagram posts have proved to be a form of art as well. He has far exceeded what either Duchamp or Warhol imagined a work of art could be. Although the diversity of form is broad for Ai Weiwei, his commitment to sharing his concepts and ideas remains steadfast and always keeps viewers thinking.

Returning to Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, consider how others would have traditionally approached the work. Maybe a painted picture or a carved sculpture? A long documentary film? These forms may have been perfectly appropriate in another time and place. But maybe not for society today. We need a jolt, a new way of seeing, an unusual presentation of an idea. We are willing to think about a concept or idea, but we often need the vision of a new master to grab our attention and keep it. This is what Ai Weiwei does so well. After all, he is a master.

Who is Ai Weiwei?


Ai Weiwei

Essay by Joseph Antenucci Becherer, Chief Curator and Vice President

Artist and activist Ai Weiwei is among the most inspiring and influential cultural figures in the world today. In the last few years, his image and images of his work have been featured on the cover of every major art publication and most magazines and newspapers across the globe. In recent months, his exhibitions have shattered attendance records in London, Paris, Helsinki and San Francisco. In 2017, his work is coming to Grand Rapids in a highly unique exhibition designed especially for Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. But, one might ask, who is Ai Weiwei?

One of China’s most recognizable citizens, Ai Weiwei has celebrated both the art and people of his native country, and has criticized the government over the suppression of human rights and freedom of speech. Such concerns have not been limited to China, as he advocates for the dignity and equality of all people through his art, his actions and his active social media presence. Although the type of work he creates may vary greatly from project to project, his meaning and message are always meant to engage and enlighten his audience. Antique furniture, backpacks, kites and even Iron Tree, from our permanent collection, form a significant part of his repertoire and his messages to the world.

Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. His father was the highly regarded and influential poet Ai Qing. When he was still an infant, the government suppressed thousands of free thinking intellectuals like his father and the family was exiled to a remote labor camp in northwest China. Once among the nation’s most highly regarded cultural figures, Ai Qing was forced to scrub toilets for nearly 20 years. Young Ai Weiwei and his brother grew up far beyond the developing boundaries of modern and industrial China yet grew attached to the longstanding traditions and artisan efforts of rural China.

The family returned to Beijing in 1976 following the death of Chairman Mao and the brief relaxation of government restrictions that ensued. Two years later, Ai Weiwei entered the Beijing Film Academy and became a central figure of that city’s youthful avantgarde. In 1981, he obtained a visa and came to the United States, eventually settling in New York for nearly a decade. Although he briefly studied art, the importance of the American experience for the artist developed through photography and his observations of the freedoms Americans enjoyed, as well as the creative diversity of the art world centered in that city.

It was during this period that Ai Weiwei began to understand and undertake a more conceptual, idea-based approach to his art. Influenced by iconic masters like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, Ai Weiwei realized that any object found could be transformed into a work of art, and that the very act of creating was sometimes as powerful as the work itself. In 1993, at a time when his career was unfolding in New York, he received word that his illustrious father was gravely ill and made the decision to return to China.

During Ai Weiwei’s American sojourn, Beijing and much of China had rapidly changed. As an artist, filmmaker, photographer, architect and activist, he found himself at the center of the capital’s art world. In 2005, he began blogging as an integral part of his artistic practice. Later, he turned to Twitter and Instagram, where he still posts daily. In 2008, he collaborated on the design of the famed “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics, yet later that year, the infamous Sichuan earthquake became a focal point of his energy in criticizing the government for shoddy construction that led to the deaths of thousands. In the following years, Ai Weiwei came under surveillance and was beaten, hospitalized and denied the right to travel. In 2011, he was arrested and mysteriously detained for 81 days, to the shock of the international cultural community.

Throughout this entire period, Ai Weiwei continued to create a broad and diverse body of work. In the tradition of Duchamp and Warhol, anything could become the basis for a work of art: bicycles could be transformed as a means to discuss population; children’s backpacks could be assembled to illustrate the loss of innocent lives; works made of antiques, pottery or jade might be a vehicle to examine China’s past and present. Even our own Iron Tree in the Sculpture Park was based on dozens of found tree elements brought together as a way of discussing visual and cultural individuality and unity.

In July 2015, Ai Weiwei’s passport was returned and he was able to travel once again. Today, he divides his time between Beijing and Berlin, where he maintains studios. He works tirelessly on new projects and installations that allow him to experiment with materials and ideas, while still focusing on issues of human rights and freedom. Among his top priorities is a large exhibition under development for Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

A Horticulturist’s Holiday Home Decor

Written by Nancy Crawley


Here is some Christmas decorating help from a Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park landscape pro.

It’s a big, busy job.

Ed McKee, Meijer Gardens horticulture manager in charge of the acres of outdoor gardens, could be forgiven for skipping outdoor decorating chores at home. But no, he’s already dressed up his Jenison home for the holidays.

What does Ed do and what are this landscape pro’s secrets?

A wide porch at the house he and his wife Tricia bought this year inspired him to a whole new design – one organized around a Christmas classic, the nutcracker toy soldier.


He tucks colorful nutcracker figures he’s collected – from less than a foot tall to three feet – into window boxes and big porch pots filled with evergreen boughs.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

He also adds white birch branches to lighten things up and bits of Michigan holly and purple-green kale for contrast. He adds dried Juncus grass from his summer plantings for a bit of whimsy.

Of course, the doormat and chair pillows are decorated with nutcrackers. A small, lighted tree stands next to the door and wreaths, including a big, 30-inch-wide one over the window, complement his theme.


Ed offered more tips during a quick chat last week:

  • Use a variety of evergreens for more interest. Pine branches are firmer than other boughs and help with structure. Arborvitae give a graceful, feathery touch. Fraser firs lend a blue tone and balsam and spruce, deep green.
  • During your fall cleanup, leave root balls of mums and grasses in the pots so you can insert evergreen branches in between the root network to stabilize them.
  • Keep your design simple and natural.
  • Power your lights with a dark green electric cord that you can more easily hide and use battery operated timers to turn lights on and off automatically. He sets his for 6 hours.
  • When hanging bulbs on your tree, start with the biggest bulbs tucked inside, closest to the trunk and then move out along the branch with progressively smaller bulbs.

All this doesn’t take too long, he assures us amateurs. A few hours and, voila, your house is beautiful and welcoming for the season of good cheer.


20 gifts under $20 in the Meijer Gardens Gift Shop

As you head to do your holiday shopping, keep the Meijer Gardens Gift Shop on your radar! We have unique items that will please anyone on your list. These are just some of many great finds that cost less than $20!