Ai Weiwei's "Arch" at Washington Square in Manhattan.
Jason Wyche/Public Art Fund

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors is perhaps the artist’s most ambitious public project yet.

Ai Weiwei walked into Columbia University’s Arthur Miller Theater last week with the gait of a man who’s seen much and said little.

The Chinese artist, now living in Berlin, spoke on stage with Carol Becker, Dean of Columbia’s School of the Arts; and Amale Andraos, Dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP). For just over an hour, their conversation covered Ai’s career and his participation in the Ordos 100 project, where 100 architects, including the firm workAC (co-founded by Dean Andraos) were invited to design pop-up villas in rural Mongolia. They also discussed some of his newest works, many of which were unveiled this week in New York.

“Gilded Cage,” 2017 by Ai Weiwei Studio/ Frahm & Frahm. (Ai Weiwei Studio)

Ai’s work first shifted to activism after he witnessed the devastating effects of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, and the 5,000 “nameless” schoolchildren who died inside a shoddily-made building. Wanting more information than the government was willing to provide, he traveled to the disaster zone to document its human and structural tragedies. This, unsurprisingly, made him an enemy of the state—and from 2011 through 2015 he was kept under house arrest, detained, imprisoned, and subjected to physical as well as emotional torture.

Since his release, he’s channeled much of this experience into work that explores our humanity and responsibilities as societal spectators, as well as the role of the outsider, especially in urban spaces. As part of a controversial rotating installation, he’s been traveling through Europe, fastening thousands of life jackets collected from refugees on Lesbos, Greece, to public institutions and monuments, as an attempt to draw attention to the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

His latest project, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, is perhaps Ai’s most ambitious one yet. An homage to Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” the artist is anchoring over 300 pieces and installations throughout New York, utilizing architecture and sculpture to jostle New Yorkers into recognition of the current sociopolitical environment, both locally and abroad.

“Circle Fence.” (Timothy Schenck)

Many of the pieces are installed in neighborhoods historically home to immigrants, like the Lower East Side in Manhattan and Corona Park, Queens, one of the city’s most ethnically diverse areas. In Central Park, “Gilded Cage” is a series of turnstiles that conjure the physical constraints of refugees. Washington Square Park’s “Arch” enables visitors to see themselves reflected in dual metal figures united in embrace, transforming the concept of the “security fence” into a symbol of unity. “Circle Fence” plays up the symbolism of Flushing Meadows’ Unisphere by creating a low perimeter around it made out of mesh netting and metal barriers.

Ai has also created 200 two-dimensional banners to appear on lampposts across all five boroughs using advertising-heavy spaces like bus stops and subways to feature images culled from his new documentary Human Flow, which was also unveiled this week. The film represents a year and a half of work during which he traveled to 23 countries and more than 40 refugee camps, meeting 600 people and accumulating 900 hours of footage.

Inspired by conceptual artists of the 1960s and ‘70s like Richard Serra and Gordon Matta-Clark, the project also pays tribute to the work of Marcel Duchamp, who frequently played chess in Washington Square Park—a destination Ai also haunted in his early days.

“Harlem Shelter 1.” (Ai Weiwei Studio)

Arriving in New York in 1982 on a student visa, the artist attended Parsons for a year before dropping out. “It was nice, but very expensive.” Rather than return to China, he spent the next 10 years as a New Yorker, illegal immigrant, artist, and—as he describes it—student of the urban space.

“In New York City we all come as an immigrant, or as a refugee, in some way. So it was not difficult to imagine [and] discuss [Good Fences]. The project came through research and my own early experience of living in and understanding New York,” Ai later told CityLab by email. “It did not come all at once, but formed through sustained examination and adjustment. In recognition of New York City as one. People of all classes can see the art and engage with the issues of territory, borders, immigration, the city’s history, and the current global situation.” As one of the most visible sanctuary cities in the United States, the erection of a project like this makes a powerful statement.

To create the series Ai, who is currently the Einstein visiting professor at the Berlin University of the Arts, made several site visits. He admits that a project of this scale requires the involvement of several parties, including the city government, the parks and transportation department, and the Public Art Fund, who commissioned the project as part of their 40th anniversary. Neighborhood residents initially objected, saying these installations would disrupt daily life and compromise the “artistic integrity” of certain monuments, but eventually approved.

“Banner 138.” (Jason Wyche)

Having lived outside New York since the ‘90s, Ai isn’t phased by the city’s skyrocketing cost of living. “New York has changed a lot, but everywhere is changing. Some places have changed even more dramatically, such as Beijing or Shanghai,” says the artist. “Globalization contributes to all of these changes. No matter how affluent New York becomes it still needs a working class and there is still a tremendous demand for low-cost labor. New York is still a cultural center and the illusion of success remains.” Ultimately, the artist still sees the city as one of the most welcoming places for immigrants, and tries to honor this heritage.

“Ai didn’t want something superfluous,” says Nicholas Baume, Director and Chief Curator of the Public Art Fund, who first championed the commission of this project in 2005 before Ai’s period of imprisonment. “If he was going to do public art, he wanted it to express and contribute something significant, and part of that was weaving it into the life of the city. Using its infrastructure, landscape, and daily imagery. Taking the simply idea of the fence and elaborating so that each aspect of the work expresses a different sensitivity, a different sensibility, that cumulatively tells this very powerful story.”

Despite his upbeat and calm demeanor, Ai feels passionately that this project must build bridges, both between communities and our own sense of obligation.

“Cities can be places that lack humanity,” he explained. “And if you lack humanity, nothing’s going to work.”

Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, presented by the Public Art Fund, can be seen around New York from October 12, 2017 through February 11, 2018.

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