Arts and Entertainment

Good Fences Make A Good Platform for Activism

Ai Weiwei’s new public art exhibit “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” is a response to the global refugee crisis and encourages the viewer to get involved instead of passively sitting on the sidelines.

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By Megan Huang

When I asked Jéronimo Covarrubias, a Greenwich Village resident, about his first impression of the giant 37-foot-tall steel cage under the Washington Square Arch, he responded, “I thought it was pretty ordinary. I don’t know. I see new things in this park every day.”

However, the metal cage, titled “Arch,” is anything but ordinary. It seems to be an obstacle, blocking the passageway under the triumphal arch celebrating the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration. The silhouette of two people embracing is cut out of the center, allowing visitors to walk through a path with mirrored stainless steel on both sides. This is just one of more than 300 installations in Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s city-wide public art exhibit “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” in place from October 12, 2017 to February 11, 2018.

The title of the exhibit is a famous line from the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall,” which analyzes our tendency to put up walls to separate ourselves from other people. It is a form of protection, but it also limits the extent to which we can identify with each other. Ai’s “Fences” deals with exactly this; it is a call for activism in response to the global refugee crisis created by our unwillingness to break down the barriers we have constructed.

Ai is no stranger to using art as political commentary. His 2010 work “Sunflower Seeds,” an interactive exhibit that covered the entire floor of the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern art gallery, recalled the hardships suffered during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, which took place when Ai was a teenager. Each of the 100 million sunflower seeds was unique on the most micro of levels; each was molded, fired, and hand-painted in Jingdezhen, China, an endeavor that employed 1,600 workers. Standing in the sea of porcelain, the viewer was overwhelmed by the sheer number and depth of the seeds, which represented the Chinese people. Individually, they were small and differed from each other, but united, they could overthrow the Communist regime.

Ai’s blatant attack on the Chinese government has spurred some opposition. He was placed under house arrest, and his passport was taken away in 2011. However, he continues creating political art. His persistence despite persecution is what makes his work admirable. Though he is no longer subjected to threats of suppression from the Chinese government, his work is a powerful testament to why we need to take action, especially when no one else seems to be doing so.

Like “Sunflower Seeds,” Ai’s new exhibit depends on human interaction to make meaning out of it. The way we interact with these works is a testament to the way we interact with the ugly issue of the refugee crisis or, as Ai seems to say, our lack of interaction.

Many of these works are in places that typically don’t attract much attention, such as bus shelters, or, on the other side of the spectrum, places where there are just too many people to stop and ponder about the installation, such as the Doris C. Freedman Plaza in Central Park. The result is a feeling that the installations are almost not there. This sounds counterintuitive, but Ai uses his installation to make commentary on the fact that many of us think the global refugee crisis is important yet still live our daily lives without much thought about what we can do to help those affected by it.

For many people, the more than 200 lamppost banners Ai has put up throughout the city are easily missed. Each banner is a black and white portrait of a refugee or immigrant. Gridlines have been been cut out of the black vinyl, blurring the outlines of the figures. There is much diversity in the people featured on these posters, from icons such as Nina Simone, a Civil Rights activist and migrant, to the ordinary mothers, fathers, and children Ai met when he was in Iraq. The banners are beautiful and bring humanity to an issue that often has no face.

In the same vein, “Circle Fence,” a 1,000-foot-long ensemble of nets draped over metal frames around the Unisphere in Flushing-Meadows Corona Park, is often overlooked and underrated. It’s a strange and perplexing sight, but it has come to serve as a jungle gym for children or seating for the general public.

Thus, there’s this brief moment where most of us think the work is an obstruction, but after that moment’s over, we move on. We think about about it for a second, but then it doesn’t bother us anymore. This is much like our attitudes toward immigration, and Ai does not fail to remind us of it. The refugee crisis infringes upon our normal way of living, but after we ruminate on how it’s terrible and how we wish there was something we could do to make a difference, we forget about it until the next time it’s on the news. We end up not making that difference.

Ai is especially successful in the placement of his works. There are no mistakes or erratic decisions when it comes to the location of the installations. New York City, synonymous with diversity and immigration, is the most effective setting for the exhibit. This even works on a much smaller level. The choice to place “Circle Fence” around the Unisphere, a landmark of international unity, draws attention to the fact that Corona and Flushing are both neighborhoods that are predominantly immigrant and foreign born.

Likewise, the placement of “Arch” underneath two marble reliefs of George Washington reminds us that America was founded on the principle of freedom. The form and content of the work interact nicely, as the silhouette of two people embracing echoes Ai’s belief that the basis of our independence, which Washington is so heavily credited for today, is love and tolerance, not suppression.

However, Ai makes his most powerful and lasting statement with “Gilded Cage,” a huge enclosure made of turnstiles located at the southeast entrance of Central Park. The glittering metallic paint of the bars evokes the sensation of being locked in a luxurious prison. By placing the installation just four blocks from Trump Tower, Ai accuses Donald Trump, an avid supporter of walls who recently passed a travel ban on six Muslim countries, of being locked in his own gilded cage. This is a powerful statement to make, especially when xenophobia and nativism in the United States seem to be as common as skyscrapers in the city of New York.

There are many opportunities to react with hate and bigotry, but there are just as many opportunities to respond with kindness and acceptance. This idea harkens back to “Sunflower Seeds”—if these small, individually insignificant things are considered in their full magnitude, there may one day be a world where walls are torn down rather than fortified.

In this way, Ai effectively uses his art as a platform for activism. After contemplating the hidden meaning of “Arch,” Covarrubias admitted, “It definitely changes my thoughts about [the installation]. I want to be able to do something. I want to be able to help.” “Fences” compels us to get involved instead of simply sitting on the net.