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Ai Weiwei’s Powerful Protest Against Fences, Walls, And Xenophobia

The artist is literally fencing New York City in, with massive public artworks focused on immigration.

Beneath the iconic triumphal arch in New York City’s Washington Square Park sits a big metal cage with a cut-out in the shape of two humans walking together. As street dancers and musicians perform around the park fountain as they always have, people walk through the arch’s new, steel-framed passageway. An ordinary stroll through the park becomes a symbolic act–a crossing of borders, right in the middle of America’s most famous immigrant city.

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This cage is part of the new public art work Good Fences Make Good Neighbors by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The other elements of the project are scattered throughout the city, carefully placed at places of passage and gathering. It’s a deliberate choice. At a time when borders are closing and nationalism is rising, Ai’s exhibition is tightly focused on immigration and refugees, both in New York and around the world. The show’s title, a reference to a Robert Frost poem, is a nod to the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Over the last few years, Ai has been shooting a documentary on the global migrant crisis, which has led him to more than 40 refugee camps, a project that clearly informed Fences. Ai himself lived as an immigrant for nearly 10 years in New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood in the 1980s–he considers the city’s immigrant legacy elemental to its success and tried to focus Fences on predominantly immigrant areas. “New York City is the most important cosmopolitan center. It is so energetic and powerful because of its population’s diverse backgrounds–ethnically, culturally, and economically,” he tells Vulture.

Fences is a network of installations that dot New York’s streets: A golden fence that resembles a bird cage sits at the entrance to Central Park. A low tubular structure made of nets encircles the giant globe sculpture in Queens’s Flushing Meadows. Other installations decorate commercial buildings on the Lower East Side. Meanwhile, 10 bus stop sculptures placed throughout the boroughs act as both art and public infrastructure, while photos of refugees and immigrants replace advertisements and street signage throughout the city. In Washington Square Park, the giant gleaming metal cage acts as the work’s centerpiece.

Ai Weiwei, Brooklyn Shelter 4, 2017. [Photo: Jason Wyche/Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY]
“When I lived in New York in the ’80s, I spent much of my time in Washington Square Park. This area was one of New York’s most vibrant and diverse neighborhoods–a home to immigrants of all backgrounds,” Ai tells the Public Art Fund, which sponsored the project. “The triumphal arch has been a symbol of victory after war since antiquity. The basic form of a fence or cage suggests that it might inhibit movement through the arch, but instead a passageway cuts through this barrier–a door obstructed, through which another door opens.”

Ai Weiwei, Circle Fence, 2017. [Photo: Timothy Schenck
/Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY]
While some of the work is indeed triumphal, other pieces are actually functional pieces of urban infrastructure. The bus stop installations, ten of which rise above stops in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx, nod to the role of public transit in serving New York’s thriving immigrant population. But they also provide more places to sit, merging urban design with art-based activism. Likewise, Fences includes street lamp banners and posters featuring the stories of immigrants and refugees, including photos from Ellis Island and Ai’s own photos at refugee camps. These take the place of advertisements; the art will be nearly impossible to miss if you live in the city. “Early on, I knew that I would rather make something that would become a part of the city,” Ai tells Vulture. “We considered the total environment and how people use the city.”

In a time when immigration is under attack, Fences seems like the perfect piece of public art. It embeds the triumphs and travails of immigrants, both in America and globally, into public space–where they cannot be ignored.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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