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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Ai Weiwei’s New York project asks how much we have grown used to barriers

The staging of Good Fences required the co-operation of six New York departments and the mayor’s office; the mayor himself, Bill de Blasio, was an early supporter

Arch, a six-metre-tall steel cage with a mirrored opening that sits under the arch in Washington Square Park, New York, part of Ai Weiwei’s 300-piece Good Fences Make Good Neighbours. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
Arch, a six-metre-tall steel cage with a mirrored opening that sits under the arch in Washington Square Park, New York, part of Ai Weiwei’s 300-piece Good Fences Make Good Neighbours. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

Public art works often reveal themselves in how people interact with them, and Ai Weiwei’s ambitious new show in New York is no exception.

The dissident Chinese artist has called Good Fences Make Good Neighbors “very almost-art, but maybe not”, and the 300 pieces across all five boroughs have been assimilated into the landscape of the city.

Commuters mistook his mesh sculptures at bus stops for fancy windbreakers designed to shield them from cold winter air. Tourists have been smiling for selfies at Gilded Cage, a seven-metre-tall bird cage like structure that looks like a gold-painted prison. In Corona Park, Queens, people lounge and nap on Circle Fence, a low rope that looks like a hammock and encircles The Unisphere, a 42-metre-high steel globe that was built for the 1964 World’s Fair as a symbol of world peace at the height of the Cold War.

Weiwei meditation on the refugee crisis engages people by stealth, appearing beguiling, but asking provocative questions about how much we have grown used to barriers.

The timing could not be better, with nationalism and the construction of border walls on the rise. And the fact that Good Fences blends in so easily makes you consider how accustomed we have become to limits being placed on our freedom – physical or otherwise.

Good Fences takes its title from Robert Frost poem Mending Wall. It is meant as an ironic comment on how barriers actually keep people apart. It was organised by non-profit organisation the Public Art Fund to celebrate its 40th anniversary. The centrepiece of the exhibition is three large works, two of which are Circle Fence and Gilded Cage, which sits at the south-west corner of Central Park. The other is Arch, a six-metre-tall steel cage with a mirrored opening that sits under the arch in Washington Square Park, which is where I meet PAF’s Nicholas Baume. He says that Weiwei does not need to “hit you over the head” with the show and he was happy for the arch to be a “selfie moment”.

“Weiwei is famous for that, and that’s really about a generosity in spirit and an invitation to younger people, especially, to engage with his work,” he explains. “You wouldn’t necessarily expect someone aged 60 to be engaging with these things.

Circle Fence, a hammock-like rope that encircles The Unisphere in Corona Park, Queens. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY
Circle Fence, a hammock-like rope that encircles The Unisphere in Corona Park, Queens. Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

“I think the work is extremely successful at inviting engagement and in lodging in people’s consciousness.”

As I walk with Baume, we come to East 7th Street, a few doors down from where Weiwei lived in New York, where a gap between two apartment blocks has been covered with a mesh fence.

“There’s something interesting in the idea that given all these fences attach themselves to existing structures,” Baume says. “If you want to create a division, you don’t have to necessarily do it from scratch.

Weiwei has long felt an affinity with refugees, partly explained by his upbringing in exile from China. At the age of 1, his father, poet Ai Qing, fell out of favour with the ruling Communist Party and was sent to a labour camp with his family in the Gobi Desert. Weiwei returned to Beijing at the age of 19, but soon after moved to United States for 13 years, spending most of his time in New York, where became influenced by Dada and Warhol.

Weiwei worked mostly in video and photography until the 2000s, when he began criticising the Chinese regime in daily posts online.

In 2008, he led a team of citizen investigators who compiled the names of those who died in the earthquake in Sichuan province that killed 69,000 people. He blamed corrupt officials and poor-quality buildings for the tragedy. The police responded by beating him so badly he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and required emergency brain surgery.

Three years later, he was detained for 81 days for supposedly not paying US$2 million (Dh7.4m) in taxes and fines, sparking international outrage and calls for him to be freed. Weiwei was not allowed to travel abroad until 2015, when he relocated to Berlin, becoming a refugee.

In China, he is today effectively an enemy of the state despite being its most famous living artist.

His interest in the broader refugee crisis was ignited while on holiday on the Greek island of Lesbos, when he saw a refugee boat land on the beach. It led him to produce his new film, Human Flow, for which he travelled to 23 countries and more than 40 refugee camps, where he interviewed refugees.

Weiwei’s most successful realisation of his message in Good Fences is Gilded Cage. The location of the piece in Central Park is among one of the wealthiest areas of New York. Visitors are able to walk inside the cage, where they see an inner ring fenced off and turnstiles that recall a border or the New York subway.

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Read more:

Ai Weiwei’s tribute to a flowing tide of humanity opens in Venice

Other art exhibitions worth checking out this summer

China’s Ai Weiwei brings white grand piano to muddy Greek refugee camp

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Weiwei has said its gold colour is a nod to the gaudy taste of Donald Trump, whose $100m gold-encrusted penthouse at the top of Trump Tower is a few blocks away, with a direct view of the piece. The theme of the project has been brought into even sharper focus since the truck terror attack in New York last week, followed by Trump’s declarations about restricting immigration and increased rhetoric of separation and walls.

The staging of Good Fences required the co-operation of six New York departments and the mayor’s office; the mayor himself, Bill de Blasio, was an early supporter. Sam Rauch, PAF’s director of special projects, says that Weiwei had discussed his plans for the show with them last spring, and they scouted potential sites during a week-long walkabout last October.

The idea for the bus-stop sculptures came from Weiwei watching how people moved through the city, Rauch says. The idea for Circle Fence originated at the end of a long, rainy day of walking, when one of the group suggested they look at the Unisphere.

The production process effectively ran for 24 hours a day, with manufacturers in China, Weiwei’s office in Berlin and PAF in New York speaking daily across time zones. Rauch says that the final result is “thrilling and gratifying” and that Weiwei wanted the work to be “welcoming”, to entice people to engage with it.

“There’s something to be said for work that can be read more optimistically or has a beauty that make it accessible to an audience that might be turned off by something that was really severe.”

Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors can be seen around New York until February 11