Good fences make good neighbours is the gentle title of the last and most ambitious project of Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei for the city of New York – gentle if we consider the socially and politically charged nature of this gated city wide art installation inspired by the international migration crisis and the current global geopolitical landscape, and of course the awful immigration policies of president Trump (since just yesterday Turkish people won’t be able to get visa to come in the US) but also the terrible sad nationalisms spreading throughout Europe. As Ai Weiwei said this morning in the press conference in front of Central Park and the Plaza Hotel, in the Guilded Cage installation, this project is ultimately about “our attitudes towards others.” Commissioned by Public Art Fund in its 40th anniversary and curated by its director and chief curator Nicholas Baume, with more than 300 interventions throughout the city, each of the works will grow out of the existing urban infrastructure, using the fabric of the city as its base and drawing attention to the role of the fence in dividing people. In doing so, the artist highlights how this form, ubiquitous yet also potent, can alter how we perceive and relate to our environment.

Nicholas Baume who invited Weiwei 8 years ago to consider developing a project for NYC, had to wait until 2015 – since the artist was imprisoned, tortured and without passport for years, accused by the Chinese government of inciting subversion of state power and ultimately as “an effort by the government to redraw the lines of permissible expression in China, to restrict the most outspoken advocates of global values” (Nicholas Bequelin). Once he could travel again, he visited 23 countries and 40 refugee camps, dedicating much of his practice to bringing attention to the plight of displaced people, many of whom are victims of war or acts of terror, documenting the conditions and life of refugees for his new film, also released this week, Human Flow.

Ai Weiwei © cristina guadalupe galvan
As Nicholas Baune said this morning “this exhibition is a response to the political and social impulse to divide people from each other. It takes the geopolitical context, the ban on refugees, the raise of anti-immigrant sentiment, the raise of nationalisms and borders all over the world as the background.” For Ai “we are living in times of no tolerance, of divide, where they are trying to separate us by color, race, religion, nationality… It’s going backwards, (…) against freedom, humanity and the understanding of our times.” This global issue has gained a different relevance in the U.S. in the wake of new policies on immigration and border control, making the fence a particularly charged symbol of division and isolationism in this country.

Ai has particular empathy with displaced people. Growing up amid the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, Ai and his family were exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang Province where his father, a renowned poet who had been branded an enemy of the state, was made to clean the village’s communal toilets. Later he moved to New York City as an art student in the 1980s and experienced life as an immigrant in the U.S., where he pursued an interest in Western modern and contemporary art. Returning to China in 1993, Ai gained artistic success but also notoriety for his presence on social media and for using his art and public platform to engage with pressing political issues, eventually resulting in his 2011 arrest and detention.

© cristina guadalupe galvan
Since the late 1960s, experimental artists have used New York City as a canvas for their practice, intervening with public plazas, buildings, the city’s infrastructure, unused and abandoned spaces and more, to explore new ideas in public space and demonstrate the potential of the urban landscape to act as a platform for artistic expression. Public Art Fund grew out of this impulse, 40 years ago. Working in this tradition and inspired by minimal and conceptual artists of the 1960s and 70s like Richard Serra, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Trisha Brown, Ai will create variations on the fence – from metal chain link to synthetic netting – to form interventions that adapt to their sites, as if growing out of urban space and changing how we relate to the fence and our environment. They will be installed in key locations around the city encouraging the public to engage with the city through the eyes of the artist.

With both local and global resonances, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors utilizes diverse sites across the city – in locations both iconic and community-oriented – that connect Ai’s personal story as an artist, activist, and immigrant, to the broader history of immigration in New York. These locations also highlight the city as a site for artistic intervention, and the charged socio-political moment reverberating around the world.

© cristina guadalupe galvan