Hunting a City-wide Art Installation: Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Imagine an art installation with more than 300 separate pieces, scattered throughout all five boroughs of New York City. The scale seems almost impossible, but that is exactly what Chinese-born artist Ai Weiwei has accomplished with his new exhibition, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. The exhibition, which is sponsored by Public Art Fund, draws its title from the line of the Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall.” Ai Weiwei uses his art to draw attention to the plight of the millions of refugees around the world seeking shelter from violence in refugee camps and through immigration. Some of the sites symbolize the types of barriers that exist for refugees, while others personalize refugees’ experiences. Some are constructed of heavy, cold metals; others of flimsy panels that are moved by the breeze. It’s a rich treasure trove to discover, if one is persistent and has some endurance.

Because of the scope of the exhibition, I’ve focused my attentions so far on Manhattan, where the largest number of sites are located. Over the course of two days I walked more than 15 miles, scouring neighborhood after neighborhood: the Lower East Side; the Financial District near the World Trade Center site; Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park; the Flatiron District; Midtown and the southeast corner of Central Park; the Upper East Side; and East Harlem. During my walks, I found numerous parts of the exhibition, usually with the help of this online map, but I have so many more that I want to discover. I guess it’s a good thing that the exhibition continues through February 11, 2018. Each piece I found added another nuance to my understanding of the whole, and it was just as delightful to find a small banner as it was to see a large installation.

So let me give you a visual sense of the exhibition, starting with the larger, metal structures. My favorite of these is Gilded Cage, located on the southeast corner of Central Park. When I clicked on this site on the map, I found this explanation of Gilded Cage:

For the entrance to Central Park, Ai has created a giant gilded cage that simultaneously evokes the luxury of Fifth Avenue and the privations of confinement. Visitors are able to enter its central space, which is surrounded by bars and turnstiles. Functioning as a structure of both control and display, the work reveals the complex power dynamics of repressive architecture.

From the outside, Gilded Cage looks like this:

From the inside, the view depends on where you look. The installation very much feels like a cage, as you can tell from this photo (and makes a good backdrop for personal photos as well).

But when you look up, the view is different, with the open design at the top somehow giving me a sense of hope, an alternative perspective of the problem.

Then there is this 37-foot tall structure, titled Arch, placed in the center of the Washington Square arch.

Or how about Five Fences, with each “fence” covering a window of the Cooper Union building near Astor Place.

There are smaller structures built around certain bus shelters, less imposing, like the one visible here.

There are also Greek-style friezes and photos on advertising platforms around the city, but my favorite parts of the exhibition are among the more than 200 banners attached to lampposts around the city. Each one has an image from a different photograph, historical and modern, of immigrant and refugees. The online map provides more information about when and where each banner photo was taken, but I’m going to focus on the images on the banners in my photos below. These photos also show the interesting contrasts you’ll sometimes see between banners and nearby buildings, as well as the challenges associated with finding and photographing banners among the trees. The images are reach, showing the full range of human emotions.

For my last photos, I’ll show you the banners at the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side. These banners are attached to the side of the building and are in stark contrast to the vibrant mural painted below. If you look closely at the banners, you can see a scene of refugees attempting to make their way to safety.

A final note: One of the benefits of writing this blog over the past couple of years is that I’ve had the opportunity to read many other blogs as well, and in the process of made some blogging friends around the world. Today’s post is dedicated to two of those blogging friends. First, to Meg, an Australian who writes the blog snippetsandsnaps ~ Potato Point and Beyond. Meg celebrated a birthday last week, and I want to wish her a happy birthday! She recently read a NY Times article about the subject of this post and has been patiently waiting for me to get my post up. Second, to Jo, an Englishwoman with Polish roots who craves the sun of the Portuguese Algarve region. Jo writes a wonderful blog called Restless Jo and hosts the weekly Jo’s Monday Walks. Since I walked so many miles on my hunt for Ai Weiwei’s installations, I will offer this post for next week’s Monday Walk as well. So here’s a blog toast to two blogging friends, Meg and Jo!

21 thoughts on “Hunting a City-wide Art Installation: Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

  1. Interesting concept and very timely given the political context on both sides of the Atlantic. I particularly like the lamp post banners too. There must have been so much work went into this. Very impressive.

  2. 15 miles!!! There was poetry in all the names of places you visited, familiar to me only through reading. What an installation: it must be a world record for sheer volume. You’ve given a wonderful sense of its scope through your photos and commentary. All those stories implied by the series of banners. What a gift to be able to see this through your camera. And then, the surprise coda! What a birthday gift. Thank you so much. I had tears in my eyes when I saw the dedication.

  3. What a colossal undertaking this art installation is, Susan! I can well imagine it taking you till February. Hope you’re keeping well wrapped up on your walks and many thanks for such a lovely postscript. I can imagine Meg’s excitement at seeing this 🙂 🙂

    1. The funny thing is that last weekend when I was walking the weather was lovely, and I only had to wear a sweater. Now it’s bitter cold and windy, with temperatures below freezing. But the Christmas decorations are starting to pop up, so at least it feels like the holidays are approaching.

  4. I love the concept of public art. In the town where I live, developers are required to use 1% of the cost of their building project on a piece of public art for a space somewhere (publicly accessible) on their property.

    As Anabel commented above, this one is a timely commentary on current events. I particularly like the banner with the refugees waking to safety. It’s evocative of so many incidents in history.

    1. NYC has a law that requires 1% of the budget for all city-funded construction projects to be used for public art projects, and it certainly has enriched the city’s public life. I think it’s a wonderful thing when cities recognize the importance of art to their communities.

  5. What an incredible exhibition, but as you say thank goodness it is on for so long . . . going to take a while to get round. Guess though the journey of exploring it is part of the experience, and helps highlight the plight of refugees. Their journeys are far worse.

    Thank you so so much for sharing, we are hearing so few positive stories about the USA at the moment that seeing this helps restore my faith in the US.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I have to admit I get discouraged sometimes about the current state of affairs, but then I’m constantly reminded that many of the things on the news really don’t represent who we are as Americans. There is still a lot of good out there, and strong resistance to the negativity that has emerged in the past year.

  6. Pingback: Jo’s Monday walk : Martinhal to Baleeira | restlessjo

  7. What an incredible work of art. The perseverance and dedication of. Ai Wei Wei is amazing. I wonder how long it took him to complete them all and I wonder what will happen to them after February

    1. From reading the exhibition details on the website, it’s clear that Ai Weiwei’s own experiences informed this art. As impressive as the metal pieces are, my favorite pieces are the banners – I’m glad you enjoyed them as well.

    1. It makes the art feel a lot more interactive, doesn’t it? I’m enjoying this one a lot, and I think I will be hunting for pieces for the entire time of the exhibition. Every time I have to go somewhere in the city, I look at the map to see if anything will be close by.

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