A Collaboration Between The Contemporary and Waller Creek Conservancy
written by Erika Huddleston
A communal spirit emanates from the new temporary art installation of 1,200 bicycles at the Waller Delta along Lady Bird Lake. Forever Bicycles, by artist Ai Weiwei, is the second collaboration between The Contemporary and the Waller Creek Conservancy on the grassy park hillside along the popular hike and bike trail. With all the required permitting and insurance and shipping and curation, projects like installing Forever Bicycles require an immense amount of teamwork. The Waller Creek Conservancy and The Contemporary have collaborated to meet the individual goals of their own institutions while pooling resources to bring an internationally renowned installation piece to Austin.
The project began with a generous grant of $1.1 million from the Marcus Foundation announced in February 2016 explicitly for a collaboration between the Waller Creek Conservancy and The Contemporary to bring fine art programming to the public land of Waller Creek. The magnetic Melba Whatley, the chair of the Marcus Foundation board, is a supporter of both institutions and was integral to the mechanics of the funding and vision. The first selected art piece, Hurlyburly, by artist Orly Genger, was installed in March 2016 through February 2017. (Read the aether July 2016 coverage on this piece here) The second piece, Forever Bicycles, was installed in spring 2017 and will be in place for at least a year.
The collaboration has led to a terrific synergy that benefits both institutions.
Through the piece, The Contemporary is implementing their new program “Museum Without Walls.” This program adds the city-at-large as a “third site” to the impact of the museum’s two permanent locations: the Jones Center downtown and the Laguna Gloria villa and sculpture garden. Forever Bicycles at the Waller Delta both activates the land where the future park is being built and places art in the public sphere, beyond interior museum exhibition space. “Forever Bicycles is an important part of our program, because it is something we can do now in advance of the project,” says Peter Mullan, CEO of the Waller Creek Conservancy. Though Waterloo Park is near completion, and Waller Delta is completed, these nodes along the creek are part of a long linear park that the city and foundation will continue to build out over the next few years. Designed by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenberg, the park design is of a quality that is the landscape architectural equivalent of the high echelon of Ai Weiwei’s art practice.
The City of Austin, including the Parks and Recreation department, has been very supportive of placing art on public land. “Mayor Adler is a huge supporter of the Contemporary,” says Julia Frederickson, the Assistant Curator at The Contemporary who oversaw the project management for the installation. In addition to working at Waller Creek, The Contemporary is beginning a collaboration with the Pease Park Conservancy to bring artwork outdoors to Pease Park along Shoal Creek. Perhaps more collaborations will come in the future.
Selecting Ai Weiwei as the second artist to bring to Austin through the Marcus Foundation funding began in the mind of Louis Grachos, Executive Director and CEO of The Contemporary. Grachos came to Austin in 2012 from the Albright–Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York, where, during his tenure as director, the museum acquired an Ai Weiwei piece. Grachos communicated with Ai Weiwei’s Berlin studio and London gallery, Lisson Gallery, and arranged the exhibit. Senior Curator at The Contemporary, Heather Pesanti, curated. The piece was shipped from overseas to Austin as a kit of parts, and two installers flew from London to direct a local team for the assembly. Two concrete pads were poured, and the more than 1,200 bicycles were bolted together in a few weeks. A second Ai Weiwei piece, Iron Tree Trunk, is installed in a woodland area behind Laguna Gloria, a former private villa estate built in 1916. The Waller Creek Conservancy has jurisdiction on artwork in their designated area, so a project management firm, Benz Resource Group, was hired to help with the more complex discussions and negotiations with the city for installation logistics of Forever Bicycles. Art in Public Places will work to install the art at Pease Park.
“It’s really nice to see the community respond with such passion,” says Louis Grachos. “I respect Ai Weiwei on a purely artistic level…his concepts, his ideas and how beautifully he uses materials to engage his ideas as an activist is really inspiring.” It’s clear that the vertiginous 32-foot-high art piece engages all who see it. Hexagonal in shape with a void in the center, from which the bikes seem to radiate, the piece invites onlookers to pose at the center. At dusk one evening, two students visiting from Dallas are standing in front of the piece with quizzical smiles. One, an engineering student, Julia Johns, is impressed with the structural engineering and sees the piece as not a form, but a vector. “It looks like one big coil. One line.” A man is grinning with arms raised in a strongman lift, and his wife is a few feet away composing her husband’s photo to take in the entire sculpture. “He is a HUGE cyclist. He’s psyched!” Others are walking up to the piece and studying the bikes, and despite the warning not to touch, spinning the tire-less wheels on their axels and setting the piece alive. Several mention that they ride. The setting sunlight activates the bicycles in the air, as if they are vibrating. The stainless steel piece dissolves in the light, so that against the sky the eleven rows of bikes with no seat, no handle bars and no tires look even thinner and more ethereal.
Now that the piece is installed, the partnership to bring Forever Bicycles to Austin includes ongoing collaborative public programming for the artworks. Ai Weiwei’s documentary on the refugee crisis, Human Flow, is being presented this fall, and a widely advertised Opening and Family Day occurred on June 3rd. Meredith Bossin, Director of Programming at Waller Creek Conservancy, and Andrea Mellard, Director of Programming and Community Engagement at the Contemporary worked in tandem on the public opening day celebration.
As Forever Bicycles shimmers effortlessly in the evening light against the shining reflection of Lady Bird Lake behind it, it seems a skip and a jump to the build-out of the Waller Creek Master Plan and the continued joy of the hide and seek Museum Without Walls throughout the city. The collaboration between the Waller Creek Conservancy and The Contemporary is an example of the creative think-tank atmosphere in Austin, where city stakeholders ping pong ideas and work together for the greater good. Even Ai Weiwei is an absent trifecta collaborator through his 1,200 individual bicycles that come together into a geometric critical mass that parallels the energy needed from many people to push the Waller Creek project to completion and to extend the contribution of The Contemporary. In Austin, the piece seems to say, movement is accomplished collaboratively with friends and family cycling together. However, Austin being Austin, perhaps some of the bicyclists in reality won’t be in perfect unison but doing tricks and whimsical turns more appropriate to a dirt bike barreling down a crushed granite trail.