This October, as a highlight of its 40th anniversary in 2017, Public Art Fund presents Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, a timely new exhibition across multiple boroughs by world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei. Inspired by the international migration crisis and tense sociopolitical battles surrounding the issue in the United States and worldwide, the artist has conceived of this ambitious, multi-site project as a way of transforming the metal wire security fence into a powerful artistic symbol. By installing fences in varying, site-specific forms at locations across the city – including sites like the New York City Economic Development Corporation-managed Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art on Astor Place, JCDecaux bus shelters in Brooklyn in partnership with the New York City Department of Transportation, Doris C. Freedman Plaza at Central Park, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens in partnership with NYC Parks, and numerous others throughout the city – Ai will create striking installations that draw attention to the role of the fence as both a physical manifestation and metaphorical expression of division. In this way, he will explore one of society’s most urgent issues, namely the psychic and physical barriers that divide us, which is at the heart of debates about immigration and refugees today. Ai Weiwei: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors will be on view October 12, 2017 – February 11, 2018 at sites throughout New York City.
“Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors serves as a reminder to all New Yorkers that although barriers may attempt to divide us, we must unite to make a meaningful impact in the larger community,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “New York City has long served as a gateway to the United States for millions of immigrants seeking better lives and has long benefited from their contributions and service in every neighborhood across the five boroughs. This expansive public art project that explores themes of freedom and the power of self-expression is a perfect symbol and reminder for all of us, especially in the current political climate.”
“I was an immigrant in New York in the 1980s for ten years and the issue with the migration crisis has been a longtime focus of my practice,” says Ai Weiwei. “The fence has always been a tool in the vocabulary of political landscaping and evokes associations with words like ‘border,’ ‘security,’ and ‘neighbor,’ which are connected to the current global political environment. But what’s important to remember is that while barriers have been used to divide us, as humans we are all the same. Some are more privileged than others, but with that privilege comes a responsibility to do more.”
Ai Weiwei’s interventions will appear in unexpected urban contexts across the city – on rooftops, in spaces between buildings, on bus shelters, as freestanding sculptures, and more – as if growing out of the existing urban landscape, while also changing how we perceive our environment. Rather than impeding daily life, the fences will serve as powerful metaphors in a city that has long served as a gateway to the United States for millions of immigrants.
“Ai Weiwei transforms an ordinary architectural element into a series of striking installations, following in the radical tradition of artists who began to use the fabric of the city itself as a creative platform in the 70s,” says Public Art Fund Director & Chief Curator Nicholas Baume. “The culmination of his years of experience in architectural design, art and activism, Weiwei’s variations on the theme of the fence are not only inventive and elegant formal elaborations, but also potent objects with profound resonance. Good Fences Make Good Neighbors invites us to consider the role of the fence in a modern society as well as our own relationship to the object in question: Does this fence serve a purpose? Does it feel imposed or like it belongs? What does it separate me from? What side of the fence am I on? Does it protect me, or do I feel constrained?”
Ai Weiwei’s exhibition takes its name from the classic American poem Mending Wall by Robert Frost, which explores the role and impulse for boundaries in society, where tradition and habit often mask fear and narrow mindedness. Good Fences Make Good Neighbors is a conceptual work that engages subjects of division and separation: political, social, and personal themes made literal and visible in the form of wire fencing.
Drawing attention to an issue that he sees as an international crisis with widespread effects, Ai’s interventions into the fabric of New York City are particularly significant in the wake of new U.S. policies on immigration and border control. New York City in particular has a long and meaningful history of immigration. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, New York was the gateway to the United States for many new citizens, and today, the city continues to be a melting pot of different cultures and peoples from across the globe. Good Fences Make Good Neighbors will emphasize sites and locations that are important in that story, and in doing so, raises important questions about immigration and cultural exchange today.
"Ai Weiwei pours his heart and soul into art that asks big questions and is not constrained by artistic and social traditions. With Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, he challenges us to think about the function and rationale for a common barrier. Given that the immigrant experience is at the core of what binds us as New Yorkers, the exhibition compels us to question the rhetoric and policies that seek to divide us,” said First Lady Chirlane McCray.
One of the leading cultural figures of his generation who is recognized for the influence and profound social impact of his work, Ai Weiwei has built a remarkable interdisciplinary career working across a variety of media. He inhabits many roles, including those of sculptor, architect, filmmaker, photographer, writer, publisher, curator, and activist. Across all of these outlets he meaningfully explores the dynamics of institutional power and draws attention to urgent humanitarian crises and civil liberties violations through resonant images and installations. His most recent gallery exhibitions have been inspired by his experiences in many sites where the migration crisis is felt most urgently, including on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016, a key entry point to Europe for thousands of Syrian refugees. In Vienna and in Berlin, his installations brought thousands of refugee life jackets from Lesbos to the Belvedere Palace pond and to the pillars of the Berlin Konzerthaus. While in New York, he filled the Jeffrey Deitch gallery with thousands of garments discarded from refugee camps and exhibited recent sculptures at Mary Boone Gallery and Lisson Gallery, New York, that were symbols for displacement. Good Fences Make Good Neighbors will be Ai Weiwei’s largest and most ambitious public art exhibition to date.
This exhibition is curated by Public Art Fund Director & Chief Curator Nicholas Baume with the assistance of Associate Curator Daniel S. Palmer.