Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Installation Fails to Stand On Its Own
One of the most intriguing and complicated aspects of Ai Weiwei's work is the fact that one can go from utter indifference to tear-struck awe in a matter of seconds. It’s also something of a problematic dynamic within his work. While one can find their way to a level of appreciation once they’ve read the accompanying didactic or background information explaining the symbolism and meaning rooted in real human tragedy, being left unmoved by both the work and its message can threaten to make the viewer feel like a nihilistic misanthrope. Simply put, does failing to be moved or affected by Ai Weiwei’s work indicate a moral failing on the part of the viewer?
The simple answer is, no, of course not. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a thought haunting my mind since the start of last October when Good Fences, his New York City-wide installation that is currently up through February 11. In a time of performative ‘wokeness,’ Weiwei’s weaving together of the personal, the political, and one’s art now seems prescient in the age of Instagram artists and YouTube celebrities, individuals who have made their existence an extension of their entrepreneurial goals.
Of course, as an activist, Weiwei has always used his elevated platform as a way to confront viewers with political issues they had never even considered by either westerners and those from his country whose government so regularly hides its actions. It’s often a two-step process however, as it often requires reading the wall didactic or attendant literature to decipher the typically on-the-nose symbolism employed by Weiwei. At this point, one could argue he’s achieved a level of ubiquity and global dominance that makes him something of a twenty-first century Warhol, an artist whose personal life became an extension of his art. And like Warhol, Weiwei has become both a filmmaker of note and film subject of numerous documentaries such as Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. His own documentary films range from the abstract to more traditional documentary investigations into the Chinese government. In the case of Human Flow, which was released in theaters alongside the opening of Good Fences, it’s an in-depth, poetic look at what has become the largest human displacement since World War I with 65 million individuals currently without a home.
As a result of his own life, one that has has been continuously uprooted by the Chinese government almost since birth,this is a political issue that clearly has personal resonance for him. For those who’ve only known a life of first world comfort though, the refugee problem is often one that can seem far removed from daily life. Thus, Weiwei has attempted to bring increased attention to the plight shared by so much of humanity through this to an audience that might not otherwise think about it. The title of the show also has immediate resonance with much of what is currently happening around the globe in which the borderless society promised by globalism has given way to the Brexit era and the Mexico border wall ordered by our current president. Any individual who’s taken high school English is likely familiar with Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” and its famous line that serves as the show’s title, said by the narrator’s neighbor twice in the poem. It’s a sentiment that immediately resonates with citizens of many countries, not least the artist’s native country and its famous Great Wall. The artist stated in an interview with The Guardian that “any kind of wall is ridiculous, even with the Great Wall of China, it never really worked.”
With the backing of the nonprofit Public Art Fund, Weiwei installed 300 distinct artworks by the famed dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei were installed at a variety of locations around the city as part of Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, from tourist destinations like Central Park and Washington Square to bus stations, street poles, and even in between buildings. Of course, this being Weiwei, an artist whose actual art pieces rarely can be understood or fully appreciated on their visual merit alone, he’s used the commission to create his most ambitious installation that serves almost as a summation of his activities for the past couple years, focusing on documenting the lives of refugees and giving voices to those typically without them. According to Nicholas Baume, the director of the Public Art Fund, the project “wasn’t about putting a sculpture on a pedestal but making something for New York City and woven into the fabric of the city.” And after spending nearly three months visiting, passing by chance, and accidentally running into many of the pieces that make up Good Fences, perhaps one of the most surprising elements is how subtle and woven-in of a piece it actually is, with a few notable exceptions.
It could be said that Weiwei’s life has long been a political one since his family was moved to a labor camp when he was only one year old, due to his father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, being active in the Anti-Rightist Movement in China. Eventually exiled, the family was not permitted to re-enter China until Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. Weiwei’s own adult life has mirrored his family’s itinerancy, leaving the country in 1981 and eventually settling in New York City for a decade where he befriended legendary beat poet Allen Ginsburg. The artist meticulously documented his tenure in the city, camera always in tow as he would capture the different surroundings in which he found himself. Known as “The New York Photographs,” many of them were on display at the Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective of the artist a couple years back and serve as a kaleidoscopic window into a soul that is as playful as he is serious, whimsical as he is winsome.
He returned to China following his father becoming ill in 1993 where his international profile would skyrocket over the next two decades, in large part due to his 2009 arrest following four years of active political blogging. His beating by police and subsequent house arrest is believed to have been a direct result of his campaign to account for the thousands of missing students who perished due to faulty government construction in the 2008 8.0-magnitude earthquake in the Sichuan province. The tragedy inspired what for me is Weiwei’s most powerful piece, Straight, in which he straightened 150 tons of rebar and arranged them into a rolling field that’s almost pacifying in its magnitude and grace until one learns the story behind the form, making for a profoundly disorienting and eye-opening experience.
With the help of the Citizen’s Investigation that he launched into a government not inclined towards transparency, he eventually collected 5,385 names that he published on his personal blog before it was shut down. The Chinese government imprison him in 2011 on trumped-up and fabricated tax charges. The incessant drama that has surrounded Weiweii has led to an existence that is constantly uprooted by persecution and controversy. He has also become something of a household name due to a variety of documentaries that captured the balancing act between his personal, political, and artistic endeavors.
Of course, for someone of Weiwei’s stature and repute to find their life constantly at the mercy of political whims and short-sighted power moves wouldn’t necessarily result in them looking outward to the countless refugees seeking asylum in countries far from the ones in which they were born. But knowing what we do about Weiwei’s background, it begins to make sense that he would seek artistic expression in the stories of others who have experienced far more devastating displacement. Currently residing in Berlin, his momentary stability seems to give him little peace, though he is an artist who rarely stands still. The feelings of helplessness, alienation, and being cast aside that are hallmarks of the refugee experience have been artistically interpreted by Weiwei through a number of different installations in recent years. On several different occasions he has staged thousands of life jackets floating in the water to symbolize the many lives of refugees that have drowned attempting to swim to European shores, in one instance tying 14,000 to the columns of the Konzerthaus in Berlin.
Indeed, Weiwei has shown himself to be extremely adept working at scales large enough to communicate the monumental weight of what he is trying to communicate about the current refugee crisis. And thus when it was announced he would return to his former home of New York City to install a citywide installation running from October of last year through February, it seemed only logical that an artist of his stature and ambition would be granted one of the world’s largest and most infamous cities as his canvas. Comprised of over 300 installation points that include the southern-most point of Central Park to Washington Square Park and the Unisphere in Queens, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors has been put on by the non-profit Public Arts Fund
Perhaps the greatest surprise that this writer has taken away from both purposefully and accidentally encountering many of the installations’ tentacles is how ignorable so much of it is. That said, one its most high profile installations is also its most successful. By installing massive fence-like cage at the base of Central Park at 59th street across the street from some of the richest people in America, Weiwei succeeds in creating a piece of public art that is hard not to stop and take notice at. In person, Gilded Cage elicits a cadre of contradictory feelings, a reaction that is often a hallmark of engaging with Weiwei’s work. Whether seen reflecting light on a sunny day or standing like a luxurious beacon during a thunderstorm, there is something oddly peaceful about the piece as it has been rendered in a tasteful arching shape that could be mistaken for private school’s jungle gym on passing glance. Once one steps into the shimmering fence-cum-cage, staring out at the park where others are freely frolicking, an uncanny sense of claustrophobia sets in as having one’s movement restricted against the rolling backdrop of Central Park evokes an ambiguous anxiety. It only takes a few steps to rid oneself of their temporary imprisonment. Yet that moment of enclosure lasts long after leaving the park as one considers the boundaries we willingly put up between us and the world at large, our apartments often doubling as purposeful self-imprisonment or protection from the city at large. The location and construction of Gilded Cage inform and enrich one another, making it the most enduring icon of Good Fences as it so effortlessly confronts viewers with truths about how we live and what we take for granted. Is it a bit on the nose? Certainly. But compared to the other 299 installations, its bluntness is a refreshing slap in the face in an otherwise limp project.
The equally ambitious and disruptive Arch is a towering forty-foot silver fence-like cage that takes up the portal created by the Washington Square Arch. The silhouettes of two people are cut out of the sculpture to allow constricted passage, the shape derived from surrealist André Breton’s Paris art gallery. This particular reference has historical resonance with the location as Breton’s progeny, led by Marcel Duchamp, briefly took over the arch during World War I and declared a sovereign Greenwich Village republic. Of course, this is an extremely obscure nod to a political moment in art history more political moments and a perfect example of Weiwei’s savvy at communicating to multiple different types of audiences at once, be it by simply disrupting the movement of everyday commuters who pass under the arch, tourists drawn by the spectacle, or the art historians and fans who will inevitably make the trek. But does it ultimately mean anything? What does this particular installation say about the refugee experience?
To be blunt, not a whole lot. Weiwei has stated that the piece is meant to represent ambiguity and instability. Its meaning is indeed ambiguous, or rather muddled, the significance of a cage-like passageway in the middle of the Washington Square Arch not as intuitive as the Central Park installation. Viewers are forced to pass through the fence at a fixed point, briefly having their freedom of movement constricted. Unlike “Gilded Cage,” the constant flow of visitors makes it almost impossible to indulge in the luxury of standing still for a moment or two to contemplate the feeling of being neither here nor there, restricted to a life of uncertainty and unable to look anywhere but forward. Although the piece’s attraction as an Instagrammable tourist spot places one amongst the rabble of humanity, the countless selfies being snapped keeps one’s frame of mind rooted in first world conveniences.
Unsuccessful as “Arch” may be, it is at least impossible to ignore when passing by, something that can not be said for the 298 or so installations that make up the whole of Good Fences as they blend almost too seamlessly into the urban environment. Encompassing the whole circumference of the Unisphere famously built for the 1964 World Fair, “Circle Fence” barely registers at first, unless you happen to see a child climbing atop the rope construction. And while others have seen such a scene and remarked on the beauty of someone so young not even seeing a fence as such, it also speaks to the fact that this installation looks almost too natural, a problem that plagues the fence installations. Rarely do they actually obstruct anything, appearing in between and atop buildings, on the arched windows of Cooper Union looking like stylish window gates, and curving over the backside of a bus stop in Harlem. Instead of doing what fences are built to do and block or redirect movement alongside intimidating any would-be trespassers, they are almost humorous when seen without realizing they are part of an art installation about the refugee crisis. Weiwei’s structures have often been criticized as design rather than art, but this accessibility of form is what draws those typically intimidated by the obtuseness of contemporary art. In this case, Weiwei’s populist sensibility serves to undercut the heft of his message, the fences’ amiability at odds with the oppositional quality that Weiwei’s work aims for.
Good Fences fares even worse when its creator seeks to emulate the different visual languages that surround New Yorkers everywhere they go in the form of ads consisting of photographs taken from his travels alongside quotes that elaborate on the refugee experience. The pieces are virtually impossible to differentiate from the countless commercial and public service ads also stationed at the city’s many kiosks and bus shelters, ultimately getting lost in the semiotic slipstream of urban existence, the ubiquity of the bold Helvetica letters making them almost invisible.
The same can be said for the 200 prosaic banner portraits formed from punching negative spaces in vinyl sheets, the faces hauntingly vacant as the skylight pierces through making the images appear as if printed for newspaper, like obituaries for those no longer with a home of their own. Looking to the whole of modern history, Weiwei’s subjects include Anne Frank and Sigmund Freud, both made refugees by the Nazi persecution of Jewish German citizen in the 1930s and 40s alongside those who have immigrated or have been otherwise forcibly removed from their countries, faces we’d otherwise never see.
Much like “Arch,” the interplay between positive and negative space is supposed to evoke the ambiguity that surround those who no longer have a home. But where “Arch” is impossible to ignore in its size and shimmering reflectivity, the banners’ sleekness ultimately works against them. The first month they were up I failed to pick them out from the countless other banners hanging from the city’s lampposts. When I finally realized what they were, I did find myself pausing to take them in when in an area where I knew to look for them, typically in neighborhoods that once had large immigrant populations. Rarely was this an enjoyable experience as each one became a symbol not of the refugee experience but of the inability of a project as far-reaching and ambitious as Good Fences to ever stand out from the rest of the noise, typically not a problem for public art.
That the artist lived in this very city for ten years yet fails to grasp how to catch its inhabitants’ eyes makes one wonder if his art star status has put too much of a distance between the working, struggling artist he once was, unable to speak to his audience of ten million in a way that would otherwise snap them out of the zombie-like march to work or force them to look up from their phones or whatever else they are using to ignore the sights they pass every day. There’s something to be said for just how well Weiwei has achieved his stated goal of making this installation feel like an extension of the city itself, though it serves more to reflect just how disengaged New Yorkers can be.
Fences serve as interventions of forward motion, they force one to stop in their steps and ponder their placement and intention. They alienate and distance us from swaths of humanity we deem ‘dangerous’ to national safety or simply do not want in our country. They reify a sense of alienation while providing a false sense of
national cohesion amongst those lucky to find themselves within their country’s borders. And they upset and mobilize those who are unhappy with the way things while giving a cohesion to their sense of not-belonging. As a refugee, one might by nature lack a social status traditionally linked to national citizenship while becoming members of an ever-growing population of displaced humanity, citizens of a world in which others do not want to live.
Public art is never an easy proposition. To create a work of art that can at once stand out from its surroundings while also not taking away from them and that will appeal to everyone is simply impossible. Artists like Banksy take an advertiser’s sensibility and affix it with a genuine message that is both instantly accessible while confronting the viewer with the hubris of late capitalism, forcing a self-awareness on any selfie snapper. Much is made of much of today’s art being overly “design-y” but design has become a language that more people speak than art history. To hijack a style of design in the middle of an urban environment and weaponize it with meaning is what brought early public art practitioners like Shepard Fairey from illegally pasting “Obey” signs around Los Angeles to designing one of the most iconic pieces of presidential campaign art of all time with his Obama “Hope” image. Graffiti artists like Espo take the visual language of signage--that most banal form of commercial art--and have given entire neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights new visual identities through colorful, vibrant phrases and designs placed in locations whose symbolism only amplifies their impact. Most importantly, public art gets people talking.
While its subject matter might have both resonance with contemporary events and historical ones, Good Fences’ installation suggests that Weiwei has not spent much time as an average New Yorker since the early 90s as he seems to fail to understand how to engage such a wide audience in a city full of infinite nuances and complexities. For as much as he may strike a populist posture, Good Fences greatest problem is that it doesn’t feel like it’s been made with New Yorkers in mind, but rather for the New York City of history books and movies, concentrating much of the work in areas like the Village and Hell’s Kitchen that were once home to huge swaths of immigrants. Of course, as the majority of people living in Hell’s Kitchen and the Village these day are either wealthy or whose lives are subsidized by their parents, one can’t help but wonder why more work wasn’t installed in contemporary immigrant hubs--which are ever-shifting--like Jackson Heights in Queens where sixty percent of its inhabitants were born outside the country. The argument can be made that it is ultimately the wealthy living in the gilded cage of Manhattan for whom the refugee existence might be the most unfathomable and that the installation can be seen as an educational intervention for those who have the money and power to affect change and avoid the unpleasant realities endured by the ninety-nine percent. But that argument is ultimately at odds with the the ‘for-the-people’ quality of Weiwei’s work as art lovers in the city’s other four boroughs are always having to trek to Manhattan to take in the majority of the city’s art. Rather than competing for the attention of an overwhelmed audience, it’s hard not to imagine the bus stop fences, ads, and banners having a greater impact in areas of the city not awash in advertisements and public service posters and where those viewing the work may connect with it on a different level.
Above all else, the one crucial thing I have not experienced Good Fences doing is connect with its audience and inciting conversation about its topics. Rarely do I see people stopping to take pictures of the vast majority of the installs whereas in Washington Square and Central Park, tourists are staging for photo ops to post on Instagram and other social media platforms. Weiwei’s work regularly feels like it was made for social media, art that makes people want to visit and have their picture taken with, say, the hundred-odd bicycles that make up Forever Bicycles. And while the social media-fication of art is a topic for another review, it bears worth noting that at a time artists are altering their practices to better capitalize upon the platform, Weiwei is an artist whose work arguably increased in popularity thanks to its status as a perfect selfie backdrop. So for a citywide installation to almost hide in plain sight ultimately neuters the political and artistic impact the artist was hoping Good Fences would have. Perhaps if he had chosen to or was allowed to take bigger risks with the installations many locations, Weiwei may have achieved the type of headline-grabbing, social media-provoking clamor that has accompanied such recent refugee-related pieces like the floating lifejackets. An artist who is clearly as media-savvy, his failure to grasp the visual language of a city like New York is truly a missed opportunity to incite a much-needed conversation, especially at a time when we are having so many overdue discussions about issues that have long hidden in plain sight. That Good Fences does just that is profoundly disappointing and suggests that perhaps Weiwei has finally spread himself too thin with his countless projects and that the most revolutionary thing he could do at this point in his career would be to simply focus just on making good art.