Meet the towering new addition to Pappajohn Sculpture Park
A new tree is taking root in downtown Des Moines.
It glows with a natural patina finish and stands 16 feet tall. It's a brown-tinged towering landmark that, at 3,000 pounds, marries to the soil beneath it.
And it’s made of cast iron.
Meet “Iron Tree Trunk,” the latest work of art to be installed at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Des Moines Art Center officials plan to install the tree — crafted by renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei — in the park’s southeast corner, viewable from Locust Street.
“Iron Tree Trunk” unites individual pieces of iron into a whole structure — a life-sized cast of a tree found in the Jiangxi province of Weiwei’s native China. Its size comes matched by small nuances, down to tree rings around the base and weathered cracks in the bark.
It’s Weiwei’s third piece of work to debut in Des Moines, following his famed “Kui Hua Zi" (Sunflower Seeds) project in 2009, and “Self-Portrait in LEGO” in 2017, both on view at the Art Center.
When adding to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, art center officials look for artists like Weiwei, who are making an impact with contemporary work.
“He’s one of the most significant contemporary artists working today and certainly considered China's most significant artist,” said Jeff Fleming, director of the Des Moines Art Center.
The path to Des Moines for Weiwei's work
A 61-year-old self-described "artist, activist and advocate of political reform in China,” Weiwei’s known globally for his open opposition to the Chinese government. The son of Ai Qing, a famed poet, Weiwei spent his childhood in a Chinese labor camp only to be banned for years as an adult from leaving his native country.
Weiwei now lives in Berlin, where last year he debuted a film via Amazon Studios on the global refugee crisis, “Human Flow.” He was named in 2011 by ArtReview the most powerful artist in the world and is known in an age of social media for embracing the selfie.
A number of the world’s premier art institutes and foundations have hosted Weiwei’s work, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and Tate Modern in London.
The Smithsonian asked in a 2012 magazine profile, “Is Ai Weiwei China’s most dangerous man?”
“Ai’s persona — which, as with [Andy] Warhol’s, is inseparable from his art — draws power from the contradictory roles that artists perform in modern culture,” the article reads.
He launched the Iron Tree series in 2009, with two works on display at the entrance of the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. The piece coming to Des Moines' soil is one of three, with another debuting earlier this month at The Contemporary Austin in Texas.
The tree offers a two-fold representation of China: the beauty of nature and the weight of industrialization.
Galerie Magazine called the sculpture one of the artist's more “contemplative series,” describing the tree as a “visual sonnet about how trees play a role in our lives and ideas of reproduction and artificiality in art production.”
Three feet in diameter, the piece references the world “in which the artist has lived," Fleming said. The attention to detail includes branches, knots and the layers of a tree.
“The significance of this work, in representing the artist's larger body of work, will only greatly enhance our sculpture park in creating one of the best sculpture parks in the country,” Fleming said.
Interactive: Explore the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines
A growing sculpture park
“Iron Tree Trunk” is the 30th piece to find a home at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and second this year behind “Pumpkin Large” by Yayoi Kusama.
Des Moines entrepreneur and philanthropist John Pappajohn said he purchased “Iron Tree Trunk” from an art dealer in Berlin. The 90-year-old businessman and avid art collector had dinner with Weiwei and they took time to pose for a selfie together.
“He’s very socially involved; it’s great,” Pappajohn said. “We need more people in the world to express their opinion.”
Art Center officials declined to share the price of the tree. An estimated $838 million in public and private investments has been made in the area.
About a dozen Art Center employees plan to spend Monday installing the piece, and the public is welcome to visit.
The 4.4-acre sculpture park opened in 2009 and, with the addition of Weiwei, features work from 23 artists. An estimated 50,500 people visited the park in 2017.
“We’re delighted to have him join the rest of the crew, the cast in the park,” Pappajohn said.
- This fountain featuring a bunny from a book series is coming to the Western Gateway Park in Des Moines
- 6 hours later, 'Pumpkin Large' is in place at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park