GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — I’ve had the recent good fortune to visit a number of art exhibitions in botanical gardens — either installed directly within the conservatories or in adjacent galleries. Much of the wealth of art institutions is directed toward conservation; it creates an interesting parallel to see art objects displayed in places that are typically devoted to the conservancy and maintenance of living creatures. Like many museums, botanical gardens are largely research facilities, while dealing heavily, in their public-facing aspects, with aesthetics and questions of interpretation and audience engagement.
The Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park occupies a site originally slated for a Meijer store — Meijer being a major catchall retail chain (like Target) ubiquitous in most Great Lakes states (and Kentucky). But due to community opposition, it instead became the location of a sculpture garden, a pet project of the chain’s founder, Frederik Meijer. In addition to a permanent collection of art on the grounds, the institution houses traditional botanical environments — desert/arid and tropical — as well as an art gallery. All of these are currently hosting different aspects of an exclusive exhibition of works by Ai Weiwei, titled Natural State.
Discussion of this exhibition began years ago, sparked by Meijer Gardens’ acquisition of Ai’s “Iron Tree,” which is now a permanent part of the sprawling sculpture garden that surrounds the indoor facilities. Joseph Becherer, chief curator and vice president of horticulture and sculpture collections and exhibitions, worked intensively with Ai — who was, at that time, still under house arrest in China — to purchase and install the work according to his specifications. The diligence demonstrated by Meijer Gardens during the installation of “Iron Tree” impressed upon the artist the institution’s capacity to execute a larger-scale exhibition. Becherer and Ai seem to have struck up a friendship over the years.
The works in the exhibition appear in three zones: the traditional galleries, the interstitial space between galleries and conservatories, and the conservatory environments themselves. Much of the work on display is porcelain, although the non-conservatory areas also feature wallpaper installations, which give the large galleries a sense of fullness, even with a rather spare distribution of sculptures. Lofted above the main causeway connecting the conservatories to the lobby are a selection of Ai’s bamboo and silk kites (previously shown in a department store in Paris). The main gallery displays Ai’s rendering in Legos of the controversial photographs that document his destruction of a Han dynasty urn. All the rest of the works on display are porcelain or ceramic.
Within the conservatories, the pieces struggles to hold their own. A number fight for attention with the botanical installations — for example, the large, blue, ceramic water drop sculptures in the desert room could be taken for little more than garden art. This is particularly true of the tropical room’s giant pots and “tofu” ceramic sculptures (which resemble large blocks of tofu, but are also a play on words criticizing the shoddy construction practices that resulted in fatalities during the Sichuan earthquake); due to their scale and pastel shades, they almost give the appearance of being Disneyland props. The sense of fancifulness is enhanced by the seasonal, live butterfly zone, in which some 7,000 exotic butterflies have been set loose. It is the rare artwork that can compete with a kaleidoscope of Blue Morphos. In another botanical wing, I witnessed a family group cheerfully posing for a portrait with the colorful porcelain twists that mimic the rebar commemorating the children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
The work outside the conservatories better retains its identity as art — but even in the lobby, people pose for selfies in front of the wallpaper showcasing the flower displays that came to symbolize Ai’s incarceration at the hands of the Chinese government. Here, at least, one detects the artist’s wry humor: with his keen understanding of the digital culture that promulgates his messages, Ai has hung a blow-up of his own selfie, taken moments before his arrest and detention without trial, in the center of a colorful wall that will become the backdrop for a host of unironic visitor selfies. In the main gallery, a series of Han dynasty pots have been refinished in shiny automotive paints — a nod to the local flavor.
Unlike other botanical gardens I’ve visited, which were mainly patronized by a few moms with strollers, Meijer Gardens is bustling with activity. Grand Rapids schoolchildren routinely visit, with special curriculum related to the botanical components, physical education activities tied to the sculpture garden, and, of course, walks through the art galleries. This represents a wide audience, one perhaps unaware of or unreachable through more conventional fine art settings, and thus there’s an opportunity for exposure to some of Ai’s more politically pointed messaging.
Yet, in wandering the galleries and grounds, I found myself searching for comparisons and grasping for a conclusion. Is it good to provide broader access to the work of Ai Weiwei, regardless of whether or not the context blunts the politics? Or does art, stripped to any degree of its social commentary, becomes instantly objectified and purposeless? Can really great art communicate its intention, regardless of context and the potential indifference or intractability of an audience?
“I still see and feel the strong political and personal commentary in much of the work,” said Becherer in an email interview that followed a tour of the show. “It seems very present to me, although the context does not project boldly as it did at Alcatraz, for example. Here at Meijer Gardens, the messaging may be a little more subtle and contemplative, but it has another strength: when I consider ‘Blossom’ or the flower wallpaper, or even the vitrines of smaller scale ceramic work, it is normal to want to linger in notions of the botanical, but there is a strong counterpunch in looking at the bold cultural and political statements those kinds of works really make. Having said that, there is something in the quiet beauty and fragility that the works … offer that resonates here. You see the power and transience of the natural world, another kind of protest. On the flip side, the two things Weiwei most deeply cares about, human rights and freedom of speech, are beautiful and fragile, like so many aspects of the ‘cultivated’ natural world. Left unattended, or worse, uncared for, that fragile beauty can be choked, can die and can disappear.”
Advertising, as retailers well know, works through exposure: It doesn’t matter how smart you are; if you hear the same jingle enough times, it will get stuck in your head. By creating exposure to lovely objects imbued with meaning, are we planting seeds for critical thinking about society — or are we just creating a backdrop for ever more selfies? Can a message about free speech be clearly conveyed to an American audience, even when it is written in Chinese — both literally, as Ai’s work tends to be, and metaphorically, as it emerges from a context in which free speech is neither a right nor a given? It is possible that the extreme measures taken by governments to suppress artistic expression are reflective of an understanding that art has the power to shake society at its foundation. And of course, those who benefit most from the existing hierarchy have no real reason to support ideas that are disruptive to it. In the US, philanthropy tends to be characterized as beneficial to art, but there’s always the sinister possibility that anything introduced into a capitalist system becomes little more than a commodity.
On balance, I would rather have a botanical garden than a Meijer convenience store, but this environmental and aesthetic monument is, of course, built by the wealth of commerce and, in many ways, a demonstration of it. Arts philanthropy is popular among wealthy people as a means of reinforcing their image as generous and genteel — and as a convenient tax shelter, a way of using upper-class, otherwise taxable dollars to purchase expensive art and have it displayed in a building or wing bearing their name. Nonetheless, in a country where public funding for the arts is under threat, I cannot argue against the merits of redirecting monies that would end up funding international displays of aggression by small men into a wonderland of butterflies. And though I can speculate about the ways it might change the physical and cultural landscape to transform every Meijer into a sculpture garden or tropical adventure zone, sooner or later I, too, need to buy groceries, and perhaps a bookshelf, and get a prescription filled — and my local Meijer is a convenient place to do so. Perhaps providing an environment hospitable to such musings is the best we can expect from the rare benefactors of capitalism, in this day and age.
Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State continues at Fredrick Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park (1000 East Beltline Ave NE, Grand Rapids, Michigan) through August 20.
Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses were paid for by Meijer Gardens.