A conceptual message of love

From inside Ai Weiwei's "Gilded Cage," a monumental sculpture at the southeastern corner of Central Park, a very different view of New York. Photo: Adel Gorgy
Ai Weiwei’s “Good Fences” exhibit asks us to interact, and to interrogate

Don’t blame Ai Weiwei if the public perception of the big, shiny sculptures installed throughout New York by the Public Art Fund is that they’re wonderful selfie backdrops. In fact, they are. They’re standing amidst iconic landmarks and are elegant, reflective works of art. But they’re also much more. It’s up to the viewer whether or not to take the time and make the effort to perceive the questions and paradoxes Ai Weiwei has built into them, conceptually. That’s the heart of Ai’s strength as an artist.

Major sculptures, as well as banners, photographs and texts have been placed across all five boroughs of New York. “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” is on view through February 11 to commemorate the Public Art Fund’s 40th anniversary. This intelligent, thought-provoking and generous exhibition is the biggest the artist has ever presented, and is the PAF’s largest show to date. It gives the broadest audience and most resounding voice yet to the subject Ai, the world-famous artist and dissident, has focused on for the past several years. As the title suggests, the exhibition is about the plight of immigrants, the tightening of borders, xenophobia, inclusion, and how the inexorable march of time, demographics, forces of nature and changing political realities will affect everyone.

All of the works on view are complex and compelling. Some are easy to miss, some are impossible. A huge gilded cage on the corner of 60th Street and Fifth Avenue is composed of bars with curved tops, recalling the ones around prison yards, and filled with turnstiles that go nowhere. It’s situated on one of the most affluent corners on earth, steps from the Apple Store, Tiffany’s and Trump Tower. From within, the bars can present a glittering frame for the sky. They can also present an idea about the countless people who are incarcerated, for whom only a patch of sky framed by bars is visible. But you can only find that if you’re willing to step inside.

The tall, arched windows on the façade of the original Cooper Union building, one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the country, are clamped with steel bars and chain link fencing. What does that work, “Five Fences,” say about freedom of thought, freedom of speech, or the desire to further, or stifle, knowledge?

Ai, who lived and worked in the city early in his career, has described the project as a love letter to New York City. Is it tough love?

“I think it’s honest love. I think it reflects very much Weiwei’s own motivations,” said Nicholas Baume, the chief curator and director of the Public Art Fund. “His own life experiences have taught him how tough the world can be, especially if you stand up against authority. But clearly New York has had a profound influence on him as an artist. He talks about the grid of New York being this wonderful democratic principal.... He sees the city as a kind of model, not that it’s perfect in any sense, but that idea of a kind of even, democratic, broad city that where everybody walks together on the street or travels together on the subway or shares Central Park. These are all ideals that he responds to.”

The Robert Frost poem from which the exhibition borrowed its title suggests that nature abhors walls and gradually wears them down “and makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”

“Arch,” the sculpture that fills the portal beneath Washington Square Arch, has a passageway shaped in the silhouette of two people. It brings to mind how not just individuals, but entire families often take the arduous, fraught journeys that lead them to new lives. Here in New York, that includes members of pretty much all of our families.

“There are 300-plus individual locations. So, in its sheer reach, it’s making a strong statement about inclusion and access which are very important to us and important to Ai Weiwei as well,” said Baume.

Through the exhibition’s sculptures, lamp post banners, structures that provide seating at bus shelters, signage and photographs, Ai Weiwei interacts with the New York audience in subtle yet powerful ways. “We have to build up this kind of dialogue,” he stated. “We should rethink about our status as human beings and think about humanity as one.”