An enormous exhibition by the activist artist Ai Weiwei, designed to draw attention to the world’s refugee crisis, is going on view at some 300 sites around New York City.
“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” presented by the Public Art Fund, will be open to the public from Thursday until Feb. 11.
A global trend of “trying to separate us by color, race, religion, nationality” is a blow “against freedom, against humanity,” Ai said at a Manhattan press conference Tuesday. “That’s why I made a work related to this issue.”
Ai, now based in Berlin, is considered one of the world’s most successful artists.
He spent his childhood in a remote Chinese community after his father, a poet, was exiled by Communist authorities. He came to New York City as an art student in the 1980s, then returned to his homeland in 1993, using his art and public platform to address political issues. He was alternately encouraged, tolerated and harassed, spending time in detention and being barred for years from leaving the country.
Since his passport was reinstated in 2015, Ai and his team have traveled to 23 countries and territories and more than 40 refugee camps while making a documentary, “Human Flow.”
The New York exhibition will include three large-scale works and ancillary works throughout the city. Ai expressed a special affinity for Manhattan’s Lower East Side, his former home.
Art will be incorporated onto flagpoles, bus shelters, lampposts, newsstands and rooftops. Banners will bear portraits of immigrants from different periods, including historic pictures from Ellis Island. There also will be images from Ai’s “Human Flow” projects.
At Central Park’s Doris C. Freedman Plaza, viewers will be able to walk in and around a work titled “Gilded Cage.”
The 24-foot-tall symbol of division stands in powerful contrast to one of the most visited urban public parks in the U.S., the Public Art Fund says. “Designed as a democratic oasis and vision of utopia, Central Park has vast open areas, lush forests, and monuments of heroes and explorers,” it says.
Another cage-like structure, about 40 feet tall, is in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Arch, built in 1892.
“When I lived in New York in the ’80s, I spent much of my time in Washington Square Park,” an area that was “a home to immigrants of all backgrounds,” Ai said in a statement.
“The triumphal arch has been a symbol of victory after war since antiquity,” he said. “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.”
The third large-scale work will be displayed at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, surrounded by some of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. “Circle Fence” features a low, mesh netting around the Unisphere, a 120-foot-diameter globe commissioned for the 1964-65 World’s Fair.
The big globe “celebrated both the dawn of the space age and the fair’s broader theme of Peace Through Understanding,” according to the city’s parks department.
“Rather than impeding views of the historical site,” says the Public Art Fund, “the installation will emphasize the Unisphere’s form and symbolic meaning, engaging with the steel representation of the Earth.”