Exclusive Interview: Ai Weiwei Fences Himself In
Ai Weiwei's multipartite new public project for New York ruffled feathers even in its planning stages. Does the just-unveiled suite of works, which takes the security fence as a central motif, break down any barriers?
Ai Weiwei, Arch, 2017. Galvanized mild steel and mirror polished stainless steel. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio/ Frahm & Frahm. Photo: Ai Weiwei Studio, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
"Mending one's fences"—an odd colloquialism for repairing damaged relationships—suggests that the failure of humanity to align with peace and unity might directly mirror our need to constantly erect and patrol boundaries. Through his sprawling new 300-plus work site-specific public enterprise, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, Ai Weiwei would seem to agree. Opening across New York City on October 12, Ai's project—which eschews idiomatic brevity in favor of a sprawling citywide takeover—is composed of three grandiose installations and several sculptural interventions, alongside 200 individual lamppost banners featuring the portraits of historic and contemporary immigrants. And as has become customary for the artist, the project attracted controversy from the get-go, in particular from Washington Square locals who saw it as an unwarranted political intervention in a supposedly agenda-free public space (it didn't help matters that the work will displace the square's traditional Christmas tree).
The overarching image of the security fence is also, of course, hardly a neutral one. Ai told GARAGE: "The Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989. At that time, there were only [about] eleven fences worldwide. Now there are over 70. So fences as territory [markers] always relate to our understanding of ourselves, and our attitudes toward others, both economic and political. It's an urgent topic for everyone to be conscious of, especially in the US, which is limiting refugees from entering, and also pushing away the people who [already] live and work here." While the work is unequivocally "about" forced migration and the refugee crisis, it is also very much about the artist himself—his experiences as an immigrant coming to New York from China, his work as a human rights advocate, and his biography as one of the most visible cultural irritants of his time.
The logistical details of Good Fences Make Good Neighbors are of a magnitude that gives serious pause; this is a vast and, literally, exhaustive undertaking. The actual experience of the artworks as installed is more refreshing—albeit inconsistent. At the World's Fair Unisphere behind the Queens Museum in Flushing, the artist riffs on the fence with a winsome interactive installation, Circle Fence, composed of a 1,000-foot hammock that completely encircles the landmark metal globe. The sculpture, made of mesh hammock fabric connected by dozens of metal stanchions, provides visitors with endless opportunities to recline and Instagram.
Gilded Cage, another large sculpture on the southeast corner of Central Park, is essentially a human-sized metal birdcage enclosing old-school "metal tooth" security turnstiles of the kind still found in NYC subway stations. Of the work's golden surface, Ai claims, with implied sarcasm, "I made the sculpture gold to please [Trump]—it's very friendly." But while it may do our leader right, the sculpture feels contrived. Along with the installations, Ai is displaying 98 of his own documentary images detailing his "research" at refugee camps, including the Shariya Camp in Iraq. These images and portraits appear across the five boroughs on bus shelters, lamppost banners and kiosks. And in a few days, the artist's new documentary on the refugee crisis, Human Flow, will open in New York and Washington, D.C.
Ai's is the type of artwork that has recently become, in a certain sense, beyond criticism, because its content is human suffering itself. Whether or not one questions the artist's sincerity—and many have—the exhibition signals an acutely didactic emphasis, one particularly notable in an artist demonstrably capable of subtle poetic nuance. For example, his June 1994 photograph of artist Lu Qing lifting her skirt to expose her white panties at the gate of the Forbidden City on the fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen demonstrations is a work that expresses politics with wit and sensuality. And the artist's more recent exhibition at Deitch Projects in New York, Laundromat—wherein he displayed the belongings of 15,000 evicted Syrian refugees—delivered "show don't tell" refinement. Clearly the nature of public political art now is that the "message" must be more immediately readable to a large audience. If that's the case, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors succeeds—though it's a lengthy read, and rendered in bold type.
Aimee Walleston is a New York-based essayist and editor. Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, presented by Public Art Fund, is on view at various locations in New York City through February 11, 2018.