Easily one of China's most well-known, influential, and prolific living artists, Ai Weiwei is famous for his direct and provocative confrontations and criticisms of politics, highlighting social justice violations, and infringements of democracy and justice. In 2011, all that rabble-rousing landed Ai in prison in China for 81 days without charge, sparking international outcry and protest (and the hashtag #freeaiweiwei). This fall, thanks to Public Art Fund's city-wide Good Fences Make Good Neighbors exhibition, Ai is practically around every corner of New York City, reflecting on increasingly closed borders and heightened nationalism in the face a global refugee and immigration crisis.
Having grown up in the throes of China's Cultural Revolution (his father was a renowned poet turned enemy of the state), Ai spent much of his early childhood living in exile. Eventually, like many Chinese artists at the time, Ai found himself in New York City in the 1980s, experiencing life as an immigrant in the U.S. “In many ways, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors is the culmination of his work to date," says Public Art Fund Director and Chief Curator Nicholas Baume on their website. "It grows out of his personal experience of ‘otherness,’ his distinguished practice as both artist and architect, as well as his intensive research on the international refugee crisis and global rise of nationalism. At the same time, his long and formative history with New York has been deeply influential in the development of this exhibition.”
To celebrate 40 years of Public Art Fund bringing dynamic contemporary art into New York City's public spaces, the non-profit teamed up with the world renowned artist and human rights activist, and took over the big apple. With over 300 sites across New York City, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors (an apt reference to the first line of the Robert Frost poem "Mending Wall") is Ai WeiWei's largest and most ambitious project to date. Here, we'll go over all the spots you can catch Ai's work in New York City this season (it's just shy of everywhere) from his Public Art Fund exhibition and beyond.
GOOD FENCES MAKE GOOD NEIGHBORS
Doris C. Freedman Plaza, Central Park, Manhattan
Move over, Trump Tower! There's a new golden masterpiece gracing the southeast entrance Central Park. The circular cage-like structure allows visitors to walk around and into it. Passing through its corridors, visitors are confronted by a series of turnstiles, reminding us of the physical barriers encountered by refugess. Set in contrast with the park's lush, utopic greenery, Gilded Cage invites its participants to reflect on its dualities and the greater metaphoric implications of what it means to cage or be caged.
Washington Square Arch, Washington Square Park, Manhattan
You may have already noticed a pattern. For these large sculptural installations, Ai intentionally selected some of the most highly-trafficked areas of the city in order to engage as many people as possible (particularly tourists). Set under the iconic Washington Square Arch, this 40 foot cage is interrupted by a mirrored passageway in the silhoutte of two human figures, evoking a similar passageway designed by Marcel Duchamp (a former regular at the park's numerous chess boards) for André Breton's Gradiva gallery in 1937.
Unisphere, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens
Flushing Meadows Park is mostly known for two things—the site of the 1939 and 1964 World's Fair, and for housing the spaceships from Men in Black. But that really shouldn't be all this extraordinary neighborhood gets credit for. Flushing is a truly extraordinary place. As the most diverse neighborhood in an already diverse city, Flushing has historically been a place of groundbreaking tolerance starting with the Flushing Remonstrance—a 1657 petition for religious freedom and a precursor to the provision enacted in our Bill of Rights. Circling the park's iconic unisphere (a giant, stainless steel globe surrounded by fountains), this iteration of Ai's fences is made of mesh, implying the permeability and flux that is inherent in borders.
Site-Specific Building Installations:
7th Street Fence
48 East 7th Street, East Village, Manhattan
For his series of site-specific building installations, Ai selected buildings throughout the Lower East Side that were of historical significance, as well as personal. For example, the building at 48 East 7th Street used to be the artist's home back when he was a student, and an immigrant in the 1980s.
Chrystie Street Fence
189 Chrystie Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan
Honestly, this fence is super useful. It's located on the roof of a former sign factory turned night club and if it's like any other night club in New York City, people are dying to get on that roof. We're talking form and function!
248 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan
This fence is right across the street from The New Museum and next to the International Center for Photography—a convenient stop on your LES art-hopping day.
The Cooper Union, Manhattan
For over 150 years, The Cooper Union's Foundation Building has been a beacon democracy, equality, free speech, equality, and educational rigor for New York City—Abraham Lincoln spoke there in 1860 (before his Republican nomination for presidency) strongly outlining his oppositions to slavery, and the expansion into the western territories. Filling the arches of the building's facade, Ai's fences offer a powerful juxtaposition to this icon of liberty.
Essex Street Market, Lower East Side, Manhattan
Running along the facade of this historic market, Exodus is a narrative scene stretched across a banner spanning the building's flagpoles. The scene depicts Kara Walker-esque silhouettes of refugees on their perilous journeys toward hope and freedom.
When we said Ai took over New York, we were not exaggerating. While most of the larger, more prominent sculptural installations are in Manhattan, Good Fences is present in every borough (that means you, Staten Island!). All throughout the city, 200 banners hang from lampposts featuring portraits of immigrants throughout history, 98 stills taken from his documentary "Human Flow" replace advertisements in bus shelters and LinkNYC kiosks, and five illustrated, classical Grecian-style friezes depicting the many forms of the global refugee crisis are on display around newsstands.
For a full, detailed list of where to find these smaller iterations of Good Fences (as well as detailed information about all the works included in the exhibition), Public Art Fund was nice enough to create this sweet interactive map!
"TURN IT ON: CHINA ON FILM, 2000-2017"
The Guggenheim Museum of Art, 1071 5th Ave
This 10-week documentary film series curated by Ai and Chinese filmmaker Wang Fen runs concurrent with The Guggenheim's "Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World." Featuring 20 films by more than a dozen filmmakers, the program investigates the political, social, economic, and cultural conditions of contemporary China with many films making their very first United States screen debut. Screenings are on Fridays and Saturdays from October 13 through December 16, and Thursday, January 4, 2018.
Angelika Film Center, 18 W Houston
Landmark Cinema, 651 W 57th St
Produced by Amazon Studios, Ai WeiWei's newest documentary Human Flow takes on our global refugee crisis head on, traveling to refugee camps in 23 countries over the span of a year, collecting individual stories, and capturing the humanity that's at stake when we ignore the suffering of so many millions of people. In the chilling words of one refugee featured in the film, "being a refugee is much more than a political status—it's the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being." With over 65 million around the world forced from their homes to escape famine, climate change and war, Human Flow is an uncompromising and critically important documentation of the greatest human displacement since World War II. If you've got time to see the new Bladerunner, you've got time to see this.