On Thursday morning, the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei was walking straight at me, right on time for our interview, when he suddenly veered to the right, pulled out his phone, and started snapping away at his latest art installation under the arch in Washington Square Park in New York. He paused only to help one of his studio team climb up onto a concrete barrier to take a better photo of her own, causing a couple of nearby construction workers to immediately step forward, alarmed.
Though he was dressed extremely casually, and hidden by the hood from his sweatshirt, within a minute Ai had caused a group of tourists and locals to appear clustered around him in the previously deserted, rainy park. "Thank you for your work!” someone called out as the artist posed obligingly before returning to what seems to be his default position: taking selfies. After taking a few in front of the installation, Arch, he moved on to the mirrored, silhouetted passageway through the cage he'd fit under the park’s famous archway; its reflective surface only seemed to amplify the ever-growing scene around him. This, too, he captured on his phone.
It was, in short, not the reception one would expect of an artist whose proposed public artwork had been at the center of a months-long controversy in the community. A protest against borders and intolerance, Arch itself became the subject of protests before it was ever installed, when the Washington Square Association complained that the park's arch had been "co-opted"—not to mention that it interfered with the park’s annual holiday tree ceremony.
But this, Ai told me once we’d escaped from the chaos and settled on a park bench (at which point he immediately took more selfies, this time with me), “is normal. If a work is experimental and has any meaning in questioning central values, it’s always placed in some kind of critical sense,” he explained. It was, after all, just a couple of weeks ago that the Guggenheim removed three works that had been criticized for animal cruelty from its exhibition “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” a move that Ai condemned for showing “a narrow understanding about not only animal rights but also human rights,” as he told the New York Times.
“The work itself is not necessarily interesting, but the right to show it is absolutely essential for the freedom of speech,” Ai elaborated to me. “The function of art is not about right or wrong, but rather to offer an opportunity for people to make judgment, so we cannot censor from institutions like this.”
If anyone can speak to that, it’s Ai, who grew up in exile in a remote region of China when the work of his father, the poet Ai Qing, was suddenly deemed controversial; decades later, Weiwei himself would be imprisoned for his own political artwork, which often doubles as activism. In 2008, for example, Ai led an investigation that uncovered the names and ages of more than 5,000 children who died during an 8.0-magnitude earthquake in Sichuan, often due to poor school infrastructure. After publishing the list on his blog, he was then beaten by the police to the point that he required brain surgery—and then eventually continued on with his work. Increasingly fed up, the Chinese government placed him under house arrest in 2010, then arrested him the following year; he spent nearly three months in detention for what was ostensibly tax evasion. From that point until 2015, when he was finally given back his passport, he was forbidden from leaving China.
Free at long last, Ai, who’s now based in Berlin, has certainly made use of his passport—and that’s not even including his four concurrent exhibitions in New York last year and recent takeover of the Park Avenue Armory. Over the last year and a half, Ai has traveled to 23 countries to visit 40 refugee camps and interview 600 people for Human Flow, his documentary which screened at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year and hit theaters on Thursday—the same day Ai unveiled his new citywide installation, "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors." The Washington Square work is just one part of this expansive installation across all five New York City boroughs, encompassing some 300-plus artworks that serve as an ambitious celebration of Public Art Fund’s 40th anniversary—and, most importantly, a call to action for the global immigration crisis, which has now turned 65 million people into refugees.
Arch is one of the largest site-specific works, along with an oversized golden bird cage installed outside Central Park, just a few blocks away from Trump Tower, which the gold references, and a miniature border wall around the Unisphere at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. But there also works, including stills from Human Flow and banners of displaced people ranging from those Ai got to know at the Shariya camp in Iraq to famous refugees like Nina Simone and Albert Einstein, up in bus and subway stations and on lampposts throughout the city.
“Public art is made for the public,” Ai said casually of the installation’s ambition. “I like to make work not just for one class, but for all people who it’s important for and who make up the city.”
That means all citizens of a city should be able to interact with the works. “I also want a dog to,” he said shortly after a man stopped us to say that his pup was too scared to walk through the installation. (The dog, its owner, and the artist then convened for a selfie.) In fact, Ai’s compulsive selfie habit might in fact be the best illustration of the artist’s commitment to equality and inclusivity: He’d also taken one the previous night with Olivia Wilde, when she introduced Arch’s unveiling in the park. When I asked how she came to be involved, however, he asked me twice who she was before showing any sign of recognition. “Oh, yes I met her. You mean the actress, right? She’s beautiful, not on face, but in her mind. She’s sharp.”
Having already taken photos of me on his phone mid-interview without any preamble, he eagerly showed me his Instagram. “You see the fountain there? This was 30 years ago,” he said, holding up his own photo of the park’s centerpiece to the one in front of us. (He would also post a picture of me later on, among other reporters he'd met.) “A public square is a public platform,” he added, pulling up photos of demonstrations in the 80's. “We did a lot of protesting then. There were also fences and police barricades to stop us.”
Ai lived in New York for a decade between the ‘80s and late ‘90s, and spent much of his time in the park, often in recognition of his own forebears. “[Marcel] Duchamp was always here. He was sitting on the exact same bench here, walking down the street,” Ai said. (Arch is an homage to the entrance Duchamp, a hero of his, created for André Breton's gallery in the 1930s.) Duchamp was there before Ai’s time, but he did have his own famous contemporaries: “You know this man?” he asked, pulling up a photo of himself and Allen Ginsberg, whom he met at a poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church, and who already knew his father Ai Qing.
"Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" takes its name from a verse by Robert Frost, which some, including Sarah Palin, have put to a much different use, missing out on the irony of the poem, which Ai described as being about questioning “essential human behavior,” including “who’s being fenced in and who’s being fenced out.” Donald Trump, he continued, is “leading the U.S. in a very backwards way because he pushes out the people who are desperately in need, separating our privilege from the people who have less privilege and denying the U.S.’s responsibility.” He paused, then added: “It’s very bad for the U.S. identity, and its vision and courage.”
The issue is, of course, personal for Ai, who admitted his “strong sense of pain and suffering” might add to the “gravity of [his] work,” but insisted that he’s “always hopeful.” And while Ai has never shied from scale—in 2007, he brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to Germany for Documenta, and in 2010 he debuted one of his most famous installations, which consists of about 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds—his huge ambition is increasingly a vehicle for those who don't have his voice.
“Think about 65 million refugees who stay in the cold and the rain and the horror with no hope. Millions of them are young people with no education and no chance. Fortunately, and also fortunately, we’re spoiled by contemporary life; we forget other people still in suffering and in pain and who need help.” He paused, then added, before diving back into the selfie fray: “We have to protect the people just like we have to protect ourselves. Otherwise, anyone can be refugees.”
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