Artist Ai Weiwei tackles immigration with 'Good Fences'

By Danielle Haynes  |  Oct. 11, 2017 at 8:56 PM
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Oct. 11 (UPI) -- Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist who has had a thing or two to say about the global refugee crisis, is perhaps making his biggest statement yet with a New York City-wide public art project featuring 300 unique installations.

He calls the project "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors," and it opens Thursday.

Ai said he created the artworks as a comment on rising anti-immigration nationalism and increasing political divisiveness throughout the world.

"Good Fences" is anchored by an installation he constructed within the arch of the Washington Square Park monument. Underneath the imposing structure paying homage to the United States' first president, Ai created his own fence-like arch of steel hallowed out by a silhouette of two people, a nod to an artwork created by French artist Marcel Duchamp in the 1930s.

The two figures are meant to be seen as a representation of cultural advancement, while triumphal arches -- much like the one in Paris -- are viewed as victory in war.

"The basic form of a fence or cage suggests that it might inhibit movement through the arch, but instead a passageway cuts through this barrier -- a door obstructed, through which another door opens," Ai said.

In Central Park, Ai erected what he calls Gilded Cage, a free-standing, golden cage-like sculpture. And in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens is Circle Fence, a low perimeter around the park's Unisphere. The undulating of the fence is meant to mimic waves of immigration in recent years.

At a news conference in Central Park on Tuesday, Ai said he chose to use fences in his imagery because they relate to "our attitude towards others."

"In the U.S., there are policies to limit refugees and trying to push away people who made a great contribution to society, trying to build a wall between US and Mexico, which is an unthinkable policy," he said.

"There is no tolerance, it's divided and trying to separate us by color, race, religion and nationality." "It's going backwards against freedom, humanity and our understanding of our time."

"Guilded Cage" by Ai Weiwei. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI

In addition to these large-scale structures, Ai created 200 lamppost banners featuring portraits of immigrants from various periods, including those who traveled through Ellis Island in previous generations. He also posted a series of 98 images from a documentary he made -- Human Flow -- in 2016 when he visited 40 refugee camps.

Bitta Mostofi, the acting commissioner of the New York City Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, said the city's immigrant communities "have had to tap into deep wells of resilience to overcome obstacles and fight for place and belonging.

"These works will stop New Yorkers in their paths and invite reflection on the barriers that divide us," she said in a statement to Curbed New York.

This isn't the first time Ai has made statements about the migrant crisis with his artwork. In 2016, he closed two of his exhibits in Denmark after the country's Parliament approved a proposal allowing police to seize property valued at more than $1,455 from asylum seekers to pay for housing and other costs.

In February 2016, he posed as drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, a migrant who died while attempting to flee his war-torn country.

He called refugee children "the most vulnerable."

"You can see the world has put them in extreme, hopeless conditions. There are two worlds - a world of adults and a world of babies, and they are not connected," he said.

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