2.19.18 — Loving a Wall


“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Ai Weiwei would have to approve, for he is making art from breaking through. He has built fences throughout New York—and then penetrated them with images of those whom global politics have fenced out. Yet in straying so far is he still making political art?

You almost surely know the opening to “Mending Wall,” by Robert Frost, and the Chinese artist is tunneling under walls just by quoting one of the best-known poems in English. He calls the work Good Fences Make Good Neighbors after an insistent refrain. Frost’s neighbor repeats it to end the poem, and one can imagine him mouthing it again and again, to the poet’s dismay. from Ai Weiwei's Good Fences Make Good Neighbors (photo by John Haber, 2017)Something about private property, chauvinism, and other barriers is as hard to detach from American ideals of liberty as a chain-link fence—but then so is breaking through and breaking away. Ai this fall and winter appropriated still more western culture with a canopy under Washington Square arch. The tall passage through its fencing takes the shape of a person huddling over another to provide comfort or protection, after Marcel Duchamp.

With hundreds of objects and images to boot, Ai is luring admirers into corners of the city that even New Yorkers may not know as well as he—from bus shelters in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Harlem to the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side. They extend to a symbol of internationalism as diversity and community, the Unisphere in Flushing Meadow in Queens, left over from the 1964 World’s Fair. He is breaking boundaries just by infiltrating public and private spaces, from newsstands to rooftops. Only he is doing so by building fences. One offers the creature comforts of a hammock made of tubular netting, while another lets you stroll right in without so much as touching the appropriated subway turnstiles to either side. Yet fences they remain.

That silhouette in Washington Square suggests a parent and child making a rough passage. Sure enough, Ai is thinking first and foremost of repression in China and the refugee crisis. He has tackled the first with past work, including his contribution to “Art and China Since 1989” at the Guggenheim. The second is on everyone’s mind as well, as with Robert Longo at the Brooklyn Museum (and I have gathered this with a report on outdoor winter sculpture as a longer review and my latest upload). Sure enough, too, Ai is thinking of America’s leading exponent of turning people away. His third large “intervention,” after the Unisphere and the arch, is a golden (or, to my mind, bright orange) cage on Central Park South just three blocks from the Trump Tower—because, you know, the Donald likes gold.

The rest is much harder to find, through February 18, and after months of trying I was still scoping it out. Allow me my apologies at once. While now formally closed, it delved so far into the city that I figured it would take weeks to remove it all. Ai, though, has the resources, and just yesterday the physical sculpture everywhere I looked was gone. You may still find bits and pieces at a bus shelter near you. Who knows?

I found quickly enough the chain-links above and between buildings or at bus stops, but not gauzy images of immigrants that convert lampposts into flagpoles. For photographs briefly in place of advertising on wireless towers (the new replacement for pay phones), Ai leans to uplifting quotes and a touristed Manhattan where New Yorkers fear to tread. As an international artist, he has the means and assistants to put this all in place. Not even Marina Abramovic is as good at getting attention, although she has walked the Great Wall of China. But then Ai knows that the wall failed to keep the invaders out.

Does that place him well above the concerns of New York? The fences look quite at home on buildings on and around the Bowery, where gentrification and homelessness are spiraling. Does his work expand the notion of barriers from international ones to real estate, or is it just innocuous and tone-deaf? Is it leveling real distinctions along with walls and fences? Regardless, it has the ambition to reveal itself slowly and marvelously. When Ai says that good fences make good neighbors, he is not altogether ironic.

From across Astor Place, the tall arched windows of the Cooper Union take on a glow even before they light up at night. Peter Cooper might have approved. In founding the college, he was breaking boundaries, too, with the ideal of a quality higher education “open and free to all.” Up close, the glow resolves into the harsh geometry of three more fences, but step back again in sunlight, for an experience that the Foundation Building’s architects might have had in mind in 1876. These cages shimmer. But then Frost’s neighbor has more in common with the poet’s dark imagination than either might admit.

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