Ai Weiwei

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei mounts immigration-themed exhibition in New York

Displays at 300 sites around city are designed to draw attention to the world’s refugee crisis, artist says

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 2:54am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 10:18pm

An enormous exhibition by the activist Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, designed to draw attention to the world’s refugee crisis, is set to open to the public at some 300 sites around New York City.

“Good Fences Make Good Neighbours”, presented by the Public Art Fund, will run from Thursday until February 11.

A global trend of “trying to separate us by colour, race, religion, nationality” is a blow “against freedom, against humanity”, Ai said at a Manhattan press conference on 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 moved 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 travelled 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.

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Art will be incorporated onto flagpoles, bus shelters, lamp posts, news-stands and rooftops. Banners will bear portraits of immigrants from different periods, including historic pictures from Ellis Island. There also will be images from his “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 seven-metre-tall symbol of division stands in powerful contrast to one of the most visited urban public parks in the US, the Public Art Fund said.

“Designed as a democratic oasis and vision of utopia, Central Park has vast open areas, lush forests, and monuments of heroes and explorers,” it said.

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Another cage-like structure, about 12 metres 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 neighbourhoods. “Circle Fence” features a low, mesh netting around the Unisphere, a 36-metre 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 … the installation will emphasise the Unisphere’s form and symbolic meaning, engaging with the steel representation of the Earth,” the Public Art Fund said.