• Iron Tree

    • Trees, Ai Quing (1940)

       

      One tree, another tree.

      Each standing alone and erect.

      The wind and air 

      Tell their distance apart.

      But beneath the cover of earth

      Their roots reach out

      And the depth that cannot be seen

      The roots of the tree intertwine. 

       

      Towering at over 22 feet, the ponderous Iron Tree, 2013, is one of Ai Weiwei’s largest artworks to date. It impresses upon its viewer a deceptively convincing organic wholeness and fluidity.

       

      As part of the artist’s Tree series, which was embarked on in 2009, creating Iron Tree was a labor of careful assembly, aggregation, and assimilation. Ai Weiwei began searching and acquiring parts of dead trees sold in various markets around Jingdezhen in Southern China. These remnants of an organic construct had been sold in China for decades. Trees, in general being a revered element in Chinese culture and Taoism were often used to decorate homes and solidify a connection to the past. The many different fragments were brought back to Ai’s Beijing studio, where he began constructing them into a whole tree in a laborious and fastidious process. As the artist himself noted, “It is like trying to imagine what the tree used to look like.”i

       

      The seemingly disparate shards of branches, roots, or trunks of Ai Weiwei’s trees do not reside within the same organic entity. They are brought together by the artist and held together with bolts and screws – sometimes achingly visible, while at other times using traditional Chinese carpentry methods to blend peacefully into the many limbs creating an illusion of unity and fluidity.

       

      The wood originally acquired by Ai Weiwei was mostly of the Chinese “Iron tree” – a uniquely durable timber used primarily for building. It resonates within the artist’s continuous exploration of the role of architecture in his work. Yet, unlike earlier examples of the series, Iron Tree was cast by the artist out of actual iron. It was cast in a small edition of three, two of which are either owned or on long-term loan to public institutions, and the current work is the only artist’s proof.

       

      And thus, was created a structure of a tree, composed of ninety-nine individual pieces all bolted together. This Iron monument, when at first placed outdoors, can be quite deceptive and appear like an actual tree. Yet after a while, the industrial material begins to oxidize and shimmer in a flaming rust color. This fantastic organic development of the medium allowed Ai Weiwei to further delve into the constructs of time, its passage, and the social questions and ideas that echoed in artist Sean Scully’s words: “His [Ai Weiwei’s] Metaphor is the tree. Like people, all trees want to be together: though we know that the birch, if it is able, will kill the oak. Our wholeness is at the end of our long road, and we are perpetual road-builders.”ii

       

      More precisely, through Iron Tree, Ai Weiwei poses a loaded question: can different communities, regions, and people be made to peacefully unify? Or is that merely a utopian construct to work towards and aspire to?

       

      i Corinne Crabos, In the Shade of Trees #1 Ai Weiwei — The Tree Recomposed, Sculpture Nature, February 22, 2017, online.

      ii Ai Weiwei, exh.cat, Royal Academy of Art, London, 2015, p. 70.

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