A former New York resident for 10 years, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is back in the city to present a vast exhibition that will see 300 of his works spread across the metropolis. Refugees and borders are the key theme.
The title of Ai Weiwei's New York art extravaganza that opened Thursday is "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors," a line from a poem by Robert Frost, "The Mending Wall," that has been appropriated to evoke the current refugee crisis and the borders that created it – a central theme in Ai's recent work.
Since leaving China in 2015, Ai Weiwei has documented the unfolding migrant crisis while visiting more than 23 countries and interviewing hundreds of people caught up in refugee camps after fleeing war and conflict. In addition to inspiring his new citywide New York exhibition, Ai Weiwei also used these impressions to make a documentary, "The Human Flow," that premiered in September at the Venice Film Festival and will be out in US cinemas on October 13.
Criticism of the West
One of the largest installations featured in "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" is the "Gilded Cage," a meters-high golden metal cage erected at the southern end of Central Park.
It is no accident that it was set up a couple of blocks south of Trump Tower, allowing US President Donald Trump to directly look at the installation from his luxury gold apartment.
"Of course, as he is a resident of the city, President Trump is welcome to enjoy this sculpture; and I've made it gold to please him," said Ai at an opening press conference in Central Park. A vocal Trump critic, Ai also called the president's travel ban and US-Mexico border wall "unthinkable policy."
"The refugee crisis is a global humanitarian crisis," the artist explained. "In my opinion, the largest and most powerful countries in the West should take much more responsibility in regard to this crisis."
New York exile
Above all, the show was made "for the people of the city," said Ai. Having lived in New York from 1983 to 1993 after his father had himself been a political exile in China, the artist said he is still "hopelessly in love with this city." He praised New York for its openness to outsiders, and as a place where "you never feel you are a foreigner."
"I need to pay back my love," Weiwei said, adding that New York is a city in which "every young artist wants to be."
"In many ways, 'Good Fences Make Good Neighbors' is the culmination of his work to date," said Nicholas Baume, Chairman of the Public Art Fund, who organized the Ai Weiwei exhibition on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the association. And New York mayor Bill de Blasio declared that New York was the "perfect canvas" for Ai Weiwei's art. "His works of art challenge us and can bring about social progress."
"Ai Weiwei is unique in having combined the roles of preeminent contemporary artist, political dissident, and human rights activist in such a prominent and powerful way,” said Baume.
The large-scale installations and interactive sculptures are incorporated into urban landscapes across diverse New York districts including Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx.
Among the largest installations are three high metal fence sculptures that Ai has placed under the famous marble gateway in Washington Square Park, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens and in Central Park.
"Fences are always about identity, about the understanding of ourselves and our attitude towards others," he said. To this end, interactive elements have been installed that encourage the viewer to think where they came from – like the silver Washington Square Park fence that includes a mirrored passageway.
Visitors to this metaphorical border wall in Washington Square Park are forced to confront their own identity
"The fence has always been a tool in the vocabulary of political landscaping and evokes associations with words like 'border,' 'security,' and 'neighbor,' which are connected to the current global political environment. But what's important to remember is that while barriers have been used to divide us, as humans we are all the same," said the artist in a statement.
Ai Weiwei has had personal experiences with exile and expulsion during the Chinese Cultural Revolution when his father, the revered poet Ai Qing, was condemned to forced labor and his family was resettled in the far west Xinjiang province.
Later in life, the artist was himself detained and imprisoned in 2011 by the Chinese regime for alleged tax evasion and his passport was taken away. In 2015, he was able to leave for Berlin, where he has lived and worked ever since.