In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was just another immigrant in New York City, toiling with street portraits, absorbing influences from Conceptualism and Minimalism, and trying to make his way as an artist not yet discovered and effectively unknown. This fall, with a wealth of global notoriety accumulated in the decades since, he returns to the city to make his mark with a sprawling civic project, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, commissioned by the Public Art Fund. Opening October 12 and remaining into February of next year, the endeavor will commandeer different sites with large-scale installations as well as sculptural interventions throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. The work takes inspiration from the simple structure of a wire security fence and turns it into a powerful statement about boundaries, borders, and immigration.
In announcing the project this past spring, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the idea “serves as a reminder to all New Yorkers that although barriers may attempt to divide us, we must unite to make a meaningful impact in the larger community.” De Blasio has been a key supporter of the work, which will be on view at sites as diverse as a plaza near the southern end of Central Park, the iconic Unisphere in Queens, inside the monumental arch in Washington Square Park, and at a simple tenement building on the Lower East Side where Ai once lived while struggling to make it in New York.
“From the beginning, Ai wanted something site-responsive that engaged the infrastructure, the architecture, and the landscape of New York, using the city as a platform rather than putting a sculpture on a pedestal or in a plaza,” said Nicholas Baume, the Public Art Fund’s director and chief curator. He had first approached the artist about collaborating on a project in 2009, when Ai was in New York planning an installation of his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010) at the Pulitzer Fountain. But by the time that work was unveiled, in 2011, Ai, who was then based in Beijing, had been arrested by Chinese authorities and his whereabouts were unknown. The Chinese government at first gave no reason for the detention and later attributed it to allegations of tax evasion, though skeptical observers supposed that the arrest was more likely related to the artist’s outspoken views against officials in his homeland.
After his release on bail later that year and pending the settlement of a $2.4 million fine that he paid in part through donations from hundreds of supporters, Ai remained under house arrest and was forbidden from foreign travel. As soon as Ai got his passport back in 2015 and relocated to Berlin, however, Baume was on a plane to see him, to revisit his invitation to create a site-specific work in New York.
“I feel very good if I can see people view art in a public environment,” Ai said two years later, while back this past spring in the city he once called home. He was sitting in an upscale but earthy Italian restaurant in Gramercy Park, and he said, in regard to public art, that he looks forward to people’s reactions as they encounter his installations unwittingly while they take the bus, make their way to work, and otherwise go about their day. “It’s hard to know before it happens,” Ai said, “but I have a fantasy about it. If you totally know [the outcome], you don’t want to do it. It’s like love—you have to make all the mistakes to achieve all the excitement.”
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors takes its title from a line in a 1914 poem by Robert Frost, “Mending Wall,” in which the poet describes neighbors’ annual efforts to repair a boundary between their properties as a metaphor for preventing a more intimate relationship. In an effort to address such boundaries, Ai has spent his last two years since leaving China bringing attention to the moral implications of the global refugee crisis. He has visited more than 22 countries and numerous refugee camps, interviewing more than 1,000 people caught in dire circumstances after leaving their war-torn or troubled homelands. Results of his undertaking were captured in Human Flow, a documentary he directed that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last winter and will be distributed in the United States by Amazon this fall. The film makes clear the enormous cost of the crisis as it captures individual refugees’ horrible living conditions as well as their hopes and fears. It also demonstrates Ai’s commitment to issues of migration and borders beyond the context of his New York project and the topicality of President Donald Trump’s recent pronouncements about a prospective wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
“I don’t think Trump is relevant—he’s just a symptom of a deeper problem,” Ai said. Unlike most observers of the presidential election, he was so sure that Trump was going to win that he placed a bet on it. On election night, he was on a flight to Germany and woke up to ask a flight attendant who had won. “I knew it was going to happen,” he said. “If you see all the media and all the people laughing about him rather than thinking about what are the fundamental problems of today, then this becomes a natural result.” Ai continued, expanding on the suggestion of complicity: “Our biggest danger is that we still see the world as a divided one rather than a total one. In that case, you can never get the right perspective and, when tragedy happens, you think this is other people’s problem.”
This past year has been something of a homecoming for Ai in New York, a city he describes as akin to a former lover: difficult to visit but impossible to resist. In November 2016, he had four shows simultaneously, at Lisson Gallery and both locations of Mary Boone, as well as at Deitch Projects, where he displayed clothing racks filled with the cast-off belongings of 15,000 Syrian refugees evicted from a camp in northern Greece. This summer, he collaborated with the architectural team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron to create Hansel & Gretel, a total environment in the Park Avenue Armory filled with surveillance devices and drones that recorded visitors’ movements and projected them in the darkened space, as in a high-tech house of mirrors or a creepy public park. In October, Ai’s work will feature in the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” for which he is also curating a selection of 20 documentary films by Chinese directors.
His biggest incursion, however, will come by way of Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, and reactions are sure to be diverse, in mind of such a pointed and timely subject. “There’s no refugee crisis, only human crisis,” Ai said of the spirit behind the work, which will tap into talk of New York as a so-called “sanctuary city” for immigrants who might not find similar public services to ease their entry elsewhere.
Ai’s effort to address immigration issues will be especially evident in a striking sculpture to be placed at the southeast corner of Central Park. There, by the historic Plaza Hotel, a gilded cage will stand nearly 25 feet high and 24 feet in diameter, with space for a group of viewers to enter and thereby see and be seen through its bars. “A birdcage is an intriguing sculptural form because it serves as both a means of confinement and as a vehicle for display,” said Baume. The curator went on to note that Ai’s “sly transposition of the form into a large-scale structure captures this dynamic play of power relations and makes it social—the ornamental enclosure becomes a prison.”
Not every crisis-minded work by the artist has hit its mark. In 2016, Ai came under criticism for staging a photograph of himself posed face-down on a beach in a re-creation of an image of Alan Kurdi, a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was found on the shore of Turkey. Taken by photojournalist Rohit Chawla for the magazine India Today and exhibited at the India Art Fair, the image drew broad rebukes from observers who described it as “crass” and “a new low” for Ai.
“So strange,” he said when asked about the incident, which he found hypocritical, given that more than a thousand people have drowned at that spot without mass protest. “As an artist, you can be Jesus or the Pope—or a dead body or a child,” Ai said. “It was just a gesture, but it became relevant when people started arguing about it. I touched a nerve.”
Ai shrugged off the negative reviews—as well as the celebrity status that has accompanied his growing notoriety around the globe. He prefers instead to attribute any attention he garners to a sense of values shared with the intentions of his work. “An artist can do nothing,” he said, “but every individual can do something. I don’t say I’m an artist—I say I’m an individual mind, which is equal to any politician’s mind. We have to find a solution together. It can be through art, it can be through writing, it can be through a newspaper report.”
In any case, he said, “we need communication.”
Barbara Pollack has been writing on contemporary art since 1994 for numerous publications. She is the author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China (Blue Kingfisher, 2010).
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 106 under the title “Picket Fences.”