Ai WeiWei on “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”
This fall and winter, New Yorkers might feel a bit fenced in by Ai Weiwei’s new site-specific public art exhibition Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. Collaborating with Public Art Fund in celebration of their 40th anniversary, the Chinese artist and activist installed more than 300 works around the five boroughs, ranging from monumental sculptures in public parks to documentary images on bus shelters. Drawing inspiration from the proverb questioned in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” Good Fences Make Good Neighbors uses the symbol of the border fence to open conversations about the current global migration crisis.
Speaking on the exhibition’s concept and production, Weiwei joined Public Art Fund’s Director and Chief Curator Nicholas Baume for a sold-out conversation at Cooper Union last Thursday. With his Five Fences blocking the windows on a nearby Cooper Union building, Weiwei seemed honored to appear at the school’s Great Hall, even offering to donate the work to the college. “You don’t have to answer me today,” he joked.
While Weiwei’s enormous sculptural installations like the opulent Gilded Cage at the entrance to Central Park or the interactive, hammock-like Circle Fence around the Unisphere in Queens’ Flushing Meadows Corona Park will likely be the most Instagrammed (“Artists think about selfies,” Weiwei revealed), other works humanize the often invisible plight of refugees. For example, Weiwei produced 200 banners for lampposts, featuring photographs of both famous immigrants and current refugees. “They’re no different from us and deserve to have their face in a metropolitan city,” said Weiwei.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors is an extremely personal project for Weiwei, who, since the reinstatement of his passport in 2015, has traveled the world visiting refugee camps, filming his feature-length documentary Human Flow. Weiwei has also endured displacement himself both as a child living in exile with his poet father and as an adult confronting the repression of freedom of speech and expression in China. Speaking from experience, Weiwei explained, “Most people move because they have to. With refugees, it’s not their free choice.”
While addressing global concerns, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors also playfully references Weiwei’s own time in New York as a student in the 1980s. One fence rests between two buildings at 48 East 7th Street in the East Village–the same block where Weiwei lived in a basement apartment. During this period, Weiwei recalled, he also frequently walked through Washington Square Park–the site of another installation Arch–on his way to sell portraits on 7th Avenue. Asked by Baume if the portraits were good, Weiwei quipped, “They were as good as a Matisse or a Picasso.”
Despite his affection for the city, Weiwei admitted that New York poses a unique problem for artists creating public art. “New York itself is a great masterpiece,” he said. “How you make an artwork is always a challenge–the city itself is already very powerful.”
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, as Baume and Weiwei both attested, developed into an even greater challenge due to the numerous regulations set by both private owners and the city about the placement and functionality of the installations. For example, Weiwei’s Arch, which sits under the Washington Square Arch, could not touch the historic landmark and had to include space for park-goers to pass through. Weiwei improvised, designing a structure with a silhouetted opening resembling two figures inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s door for surrealist André Breton’s Paris gallery Gradiva. Baume observed, “You don’t take any obstacle as a problem. You don’t waste time worrying.” Weiwei agreed, adding, “My creativity comes from problems.”
Asserting “art belongs to the people,” Weiwei hopes the installations will encourage passersby to feel or think differently, whether about public space, immigration or isolationist border policies. He noted he wants to “make work that functions on many levels in which people feel something different or that something has changed. We are so used to our daily life or daily practice.”
Unlike most border walls, Weiwei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors aims to unite rather than divide viewers. Asked by an audience member about his definition of “good fences,” Weiwei answered point blank, “There are no good fences.”