The Contemporary Austin Acquires Ai Weiwei’s Iron Tree Trunk For Sculpture Park At Laguna Gloria

The Contemporary Austin Acquires Ai Weiwei’s Iron Tree Trunk For Sculpture Park At Laguna Gloria

OCTOBER 1, 2018, AUSTIN, TEXAS — Louis Grachos, the Ernest and Sarah Butler Executive Director and CEO of The Contemporary Austin, is honored to announce that the museum has secured funds to acquire the sculpture Iron Tree Trunk by artist and political activist Ai Weiwei(Chinese, born 1957 in Beijing). Installed in 2017, among the trees within The Contemporary’s fourteen-acre, lakeside Laguna Gloria site, Iron Tree Trunk has quickly become an iconic art experience in Austin, beloved by visitors who come to the contemporary sculpture park each year.

The acquisition of Ai Weiwei’s Iron Tree Trunk is made possible through a generous challenge grant from the Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation. Reflecting the public’s appreciation for this important piece, funds to meet the challenge grant and purchase Iron Tree Trunk for Austin were raised through gifts from more than seventy additional individual, foundation, and corporate donors from throughout Central Texas and across the country, including an Urban Forest Grant from the City of Austin. A full list of donors is available online at

“Ai Weiwei is among the most important artists working in the world today,” Grachos said. “I am touched and so impressed by the outpouring of support for this purchase. Austinite’s clearly understand just how significant a work like this is for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of the tens of thousands of adults and children who visit Laguna Gloria from the region, for the cultural tourists who come to Austin from around the world, and for future generations who will develop lifelong relationships and lasting memories with this moving and poetic sculpture.”

Melba Whatley, Chairperson of the Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation said, “What could be more wonderful than participating in the acquisition of Ai Weiwei’s singular work Iron Tree Trunk. We believe great art elevates us all. Through Ai Weiwei’s monumental sculpture we brush up against China, immigration, civil rights, nature and the awe-inspiring dimensions of genius. All Austinites can be proud that this community has matched the Marcus Foundation’s financial support for this most important addition to the city’s cultural landscape.”

Grachos continued, “I extend my deepest gratitude–on behalf of the museum and all of its visitors–to the Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation and to each individual and organization that contributed to this historic purchase for the city of Austin.”


On view at The Contemporary Austin’s Laguna Gloria location, in the Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park, Iron Tree Trunk is a monumental sculpture that offers a poetic composition rich with references to the artist’s Chinese heritage as well as to the landscape of the surrounding sculpture park at Laguna Gloria. Since 2009, Ai has explored the theme of trees and, especially, felled tree trunks, branches, and roots, creating large-scale, minimalist works in cast iron or, at times, using the original wood. The artist was inspired by a Chinese tradition local to the city of Jingdezhen and encountered by the artist during a visit in 2009–in which dried tree sections, appreciated for their complexity and aesthetic and contemplative qualities, are sold at market to be displayed in homes. Ai began his series of iron trees by collecting parts of dead trees that had been gathered from mountainous areas in southern China. The artist then pieces segments of different trees together, joining them with oversized bolts and screws and casting the final compositions in iron–leaving clues to their making to reveal that these amalgamations are actually man-made replicas and hybrid specimens. Other sculptures in this series might be created from individually cast elements that are then bolted together, or may incorporate traditional woodworking joinery techniques.

In this lineage, Iron Tree Trunk is a fifteen-foot-high sculpture that resembles the hollowed-out remains of a dead and decomposing tree trunk. Positioned near the lagoon at the sculpture park, Iron Tree Trunk may be mistaken as a natural part of the landscape from afar, but on closer inspection, the man-made qualities come into focus. A towering yet subtle monolith, the work suggests an affinity with the aesthetics of nature, landscape, and material while alluding to the environmental costs of industrialization and urbanization both here and in the artist’s native China.


Conceptual artist Ai Weiwei is one of the leading cultural figures of his generation. Drawing on current global politics, Chinese culture, human rights, and more to push the definition of art into new realms, Ai consistently places himself at risk to effect social change and has amplified his own artistic voice by expanding his output to include films, photography, writing, publishing, curation, and architecture. Permeated by social conscience, humor, and compassion, his work has included a range of unorthodox methods, materials, and subject matter, including Instagram feeds, dioramas of his own experiences in a Chinese prison, millions of porcelain sunflower seeds filling a museum, and items of clothing left behind in refugee camps, meticulously washed, pressed, and arranged in a gallery.

Ai resides and works in both Berlin and Beijing. His father, the poet Ai Qing, was denounced by China’s Communist Party in 1958 and his family was sent to labor camps, first near the North Korean border and then eventually in Xinjiang province. They returned to Beijing in 1976 after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Ai studied animation at the Beijing Film Academy, and then studied art in New York in the early eighties. Upon returning to China a decade later, Ai advocated for experimental artists by publishing underground books and curating avant-garde exhibitions. He has worked in many media, including sculpture, installation, photography, architecture and film. He is an outspoken advocate of human rights and freedom of speech. He is the recipient of the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent in 2012 and the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2015.

Recent solo exhibitions include Law of the Journey, National Gallery in Prague, 2017, transformation-translocation, 21er Haus Museum of Contemporary Art, Vienna, 2016, #SafePassage, Foam, Amsterdam, 2016, Ai Weiwei. Libero, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 2016, Ai Weiwei, Royal Academy of Art, London, 2015, Evidence, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 2014, and Ai Weiwei: According to What?, Hirshhorn Museum of Art, Washington D.C., 2012. Ai Weiwei is represented by Lisson Gallery, London, Milan, and New York.
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