There are a few times during the year when you really don’t want to miss a trip to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, and any local will tell you that the yearly “Fred & Dorothy Fichter Butterflies are Blooming” exhibit is one of those times. Nearly every Grand Rapidian parent has a tale of getting caught up in their child’s excitement and wonder as one of 7,000 butterflies from Asia, Africa, and Central and South America lands on their shoulder. Families can inspect butterflies cracking open their cocoons and beginning their new lives in the “Butterfly Bungalow.”

Emerald Swallowtail butterfly at the Butterflies are Blooming exhibit in Grand Rapids
Photo courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park

 

This exhibit comes just as we’re all getting extra sick of the cold weather – perfect timing for Meijer Gardens to turn up the heat and humidity in their already balmy tropical conservatory (read: paradise in a five-story, 15,000 square foot glass greenhouse).

This spring, the Gardens have another treat in store: they’ve pulled off the coup of bringing one of the most important artists of our time, in the world, to Grand Rapids and filled their entire building – conservatories included – with his art. It’s a big deal, folks.

Art world star Ai Weiwei’s exhibit, titled “Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State,” may perhaps be best experienced with children in tow. The younger the better. Kids show us how to rediscover wonder and joy, and Ai’s work, though addressing serious issues, still has this incredible playfulness to it.

That sense of play and discovery is actually an important part of interacting with his work.

The art student of my past, who had to take entirely too many art history classes, says you should take this seriously: Ai Weiwei is an art star! He talks about important, serious stuff! Free Speech! Governmental negligence resulting in the deaths of children! Spy programs, destruction of culture in the name of progress! Police brutality, human rights, freedom! This is no time to be silly! – old me insists.

But. The mother in me today returned to visit the exhibit again, recently, this time with two 6-year-old boys along for the edification of important art.

Ahem.

"Those are real!” one exclaimed about the 1,000 porcelain river crabs piled on top of each other in a heap. He was insistent. There’s no way they weren’t real. The watermelons? Real. White flowers? Yep, you guessed it. Real. Me telling the boys they were made of porcelain was no deterrent.

Ai Weiwei artwork at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
Photo credit: Tiffany Szakal

 

Those x-rays of Ai’s brain damage displayed in front of brilliant photos of flowers? Gross. The rebar, twisted and painted brilliant colors, representing the negligent constructions of schools that toppled during the Sichuan earthquake?

“Those are snakes!”

My little art critics were confident, quick to create their own stories about the work, and alive with their task of interacting with art. They were also eager to hear the stories behind the work: why did the porcelain flowers represent resisting injustice? Why do the 1000s of seeds inside a watermelon make us think of the power of community? What is the purpose of shiny purple auto body paint on centuries-old traditional pottery? Their imaginations were alive – with the artist’s stories along with their own.

We moved to the tropical conservatory, on the hunt for two things: butterflies, and art. Both were spied with glee.

Ai Weiwei artwork at Meijer Gardens
Photo credit: Holly Bechiri

So sure, if you want to get the most out of the Ai Weiwei exhibit at Meijer Gardens, it wouldn’t hurt to read an article or two about Ai ahead of time, and to familiarize yourself with the themes and subjects he approaches. And yes, it’s helpful to read the placards to learn the back story behind these often colorful and innocent-looking works.

But take it from me and a couple of 6-year-olds: you won’t really get the most out of it until you can also let go, get playful, and revel in the joy and beauty of what’s visually in front of you. Ai Weiwei shows us how to stay playful, even when faced with atrocities and human rights violations. His ability to keep working, keep making beauty, keep speaking out, even in the middle of the world’s worst problems, is a testament to the power of, and need for, art. The artist’s ability to grapple with and speak about such important topics without losing his sense of play is a skill we could all learn from – or at least enjoy – as we’re surrounded by internationally important work and world-traveling butterflies.