Des Moines Art Center: Surprise! It’s Ai Weiwei

Hello there friends (and strangers),

Happy almost Easter to you all! My friend Abbie is spending Easter with me this year, which is a wonderful treat. A couple of days ago we walked around the Pappajohn Sculpture park, which has an amazing collection of outdoor sculpture, including works by Ugo Rondinone, Anthony Caro, Judith Shea, Louise Bourgeois, Barry Flanagan, Joel Shapiro, Gary Hune, Deborah Butterfield, Ellsworth Kelly, Scott Burton, William Tucker, Tony Smith, Sol LeWitt, Willem de Kooning, Yoshimoto Nara, Mark di Suvero, Richard Serra, and Martin Puryear, Keith Herring, and Juame Plensa. That’s quite a list! It’s an impressive park.

Today we went to the Des Moines Art Center. I’m a little ashamed to admit it’s the first time I’ve been there, despite having lived in DSM for 7 months now. Abbie is an artist as well – she has her MFA in sculpture, so I figured it would be fun to check it out together. We weren’t disappointed. The Art Center is great, and it’s free for everyone to go look at. It was much bigger than I expected, even though I had been told on several different occasions by several different people that it’s a really nice museum with an extensive collection. The center also maintains the Pappajohn Sculpture park and has studios for community members to take art classes in several different media. If you want to read more about the center, the sculpture park, or their classes, click here.

One of my favorite pieces at the center was Ai Weiwei’s porcelain sunflower seeds. I’ve been reading about them in various publications for quite some time now, and when we rounded the stairs and came face-to-face with a pile of 250,000 hand formed, hand painted seeds I thought there must be some mistake. I blurted out to Abbie, “I know this artist!” And then I automatically added, “I think…” because I couldn’t wrap my head around the DSM Art Center’s owning any work by Ai Weiwei. (No offense, Iowa… You continually surprise me, in good ways!) I proceeded to start telling Abbie about them – how the artist commissioned 1600 people in Jingdezhen, China, to make the seeds, how they were installed at the Tate Modern in London, how the gallery didn’t let the public interact with the piece in the way the artist originally planned, etc.

Toward the end of my excited explanation, the docent in the room (who had been standing less than 10 feet away the entire time) came up to us and interrupted me, saying, “Are you two familiar with the artist Ai Weiwei?” We both said yes, and I thought she would leave us alone. Instead, she launched into a description of the work, the same one I’d just given Abbie. I was glad that she was friendly and that she was excited about the piece, but at the same time I was a tiny bit annoyed. When I’m looking at art, I really don’t like to be approached by the docents. If I have a question, I’ll come find you. I promise! It’s one of my irrational pet peeves, when random people interrupt my art viewing experience.

Anyway, another piece I liked was a video. It’s the first video I’ve seen that’s made me believe that medium might have a place in a gallery setting. Video artists, you have my humble apologies. I’ve just never seen a video that sucked me in, until today. The video is called “Flooded McDonald’s,” by Superflex, a Danish artist collective. The artists built a replica McDonald’s restaurant in a swimming pool and then proceeded to flood it, filming the entire time. I just asked Abbie how she’d describe it and she said something along the lines of, “It’s a cinematic experience that touches on the filth of American consumerism.” Curious, because what I got out of it was different – it spoke to me of our society’s complete disregard for nutrition. Either way, it expresses a forceful, sinister message with moments of unexpected beauty and humor.

It was a good art day today. Now it’s really late and I need to go to bed. TTFN