Loving a Wall

John Haber
in New York City

Ai Weiwei and Erwin Redl

Gillie and Marc, Politics, and Outdoor Sculpture

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall." Ai Weiwei would have to approve, for he is making art from breaking through.

Ai has built fences throughout New York—and then penetrated them with images of those whom global politics have fenced out. Nor is he the only artist leaving his comfort zone. Erwin Redl takes his lights to Madison Square, with something of fencing in their glow and grid, only flat on the ground. Yet in straying so far is Ai still making political art? Are Gillie and Marc with their childish tribute to endangered rhinos? Not entirely, not even Ai, but they take outdoor sculpture beyond the parks and beyond summer. from Ai Weiwei's Good Fences Make Good Neighbors (photo by John Haber, 2017)

Soonest mended

You almost surely know the opening to "Mending Wall," by Robert Frost, and Ai Weiwei 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. 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. The Chinese artist appropriates 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 to provide comfort or protection, after Marcel Duchamp.

With hundreds more 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. 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 in Brooklyn. 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, and after months of trying I am still scoping it out. 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 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.

Beware of darkness

If there is one small compensation for the encroaching darkness, it is that the lights come on early. On those chill winter days, with evenings fallen into night and late afternoons stolen away, horizons shrink as well. Even for a determined New Yorker, the closest friend or the next gallery can seem ever so far away. Still, early sunsets have their privileges. They fall within museum hours, so that James Turrell can open the ceiling of MoMA PS1 as Meeting, for visitors willing to sit for a while and to brave the cold. Contemplating his "skyscape" and its changing light takes time, but then its message is that light and time take contemplation.

Erwin Redl rewards patience, too, in Madison Square Park until the very first days of spring, and summer sculpture has nothing on this. In contrast to California's Light and Space artists like Turrell, with their altered environments and natural light, Redl make use of the found environment and artificial lights. He identifies with earthworks, but without moving earth at all. Those in search of Whiteout, may enter the park wondering whether they have found it. The title puns on "lights out" and erasure, but the lights keep coming on. They began a few days before the nearby Christmas tree, but already they had plenty of company.

Even from across the street at night, the park glows. New technologies, ample funding, and ecological awareness have lined its paths with quaint enough lampposts and near orange light bulbs. Decorative lights wrap the posts as well—but then Redl did bring a Matrix of tree-ornament lights to the 2002 Whitney Biennial. Other lights shine in the park's fountains, in the windows of surrounding buildings, or atop the Empire State Building. Erwin Redl's Whiteout (Madison Square Park, 2017–2018)They make the park seem green even in winter. They could all be part of the show.

Keep going, though, and art is just where it is supposed to be. When I reached the central lawn, fenced off in winter to replenish the soil, it was one huge field of light. When I found the placard introducing the work, it had gone dark, but before I had finished reading it was light again. Hundreds of bulbs in orderly rows rest just over a foot off the ground. They visually reshape the lawn as a large rectangle much like a football field—or, rather, two fields side by side with their illumination out of sync. This could be the halftime show, but it does not begin or end all at once.

Its rhythms are all part of the game. From the moment of full lighting, the north end of a field begins to darken, and the darkness marches across one row at a time. When it reaches the south end, the north begins to brighten once more. Come back the next day, and the bulbs blend into sunlight. They also, though, become material objects at the center of small translucent spheres, and the work's construction becomes part of its rhythm, too. It looks less mysterious than at night, but its plainness is worth contemplating, too.

The spheres hang down from a network of wires and tall black poles that also supply electricity. Their changing points of light become equal elements in a grid, as in a canvas for Agnes Martin. They also sway like pendulums in, to quote Robert Burns, "bleak December winds," but in no discernible pattern. Redl has employed LEDs before in a supposed perpetual-motion machine, but physics had the last word then as now. As Burns concluded, so much for "the best laid schemes of mice and men." Beware of darkness.

The endangered circus

Animal rights activists have no fondness for circuses and zoos. What, then, must they think of the bronze sculpture in Astor Place? At seventeen feet high, it turns an endangered subspecies into a circus act, smack in the middle of the zoo called New York art. It invites gawkers and gigglers, all in the supposed interest of northern white rhinos. If this is sculpture on behalf of animals, then so is the balloon bunny by Jeff Koons in the IBM lobby across the street. At least actual zoos keep professionals on staff dedicated to the health and safety of animals.

It also comes far too late. When Gillie and Marc installed their work in mid-March, just three such creatures remained—in a conservancy in Kenya, under armed guard. With the sole male nearing forty-five, the odds of reproduction were nil, and that male died just days later. One would never know it, though, from The Last Three. It places one rhino on its back with its feet in the air, like a dog waiting for someone to tickle its stomach. A second stands proudly on those raised feet, while the last supports them all on its back.

If one tries hard enough, one could imagine the one on its back as dying and the one on the bottom of the pile as weary. It seems more, though, to be charging. Head slightly lowered, it is a close relative of the bull north of Battery Park that stands for Wall Street. Now if only it, too, had a cute little bronze girl facing it, it might really draw a tourist crowd. Those still lamenting the loss of Cecil the Southern African lion could delight in the very names of the rhinos—Najin, Fatu, and (the male) Sudan. They could only wish that they could tickle the middle rhino's stomach.

Would they even know the sculpture's purpose, or does its pandering bury its intent? They would have to know if they drew close enough to read the plaques, one calling on visitors to join a petition in favor of, well, something and a second added after the fact to announce Sudan's death. This, though, is sculpture to be seen at a distance, much like the ugly piled glass of Charles Gwathmey's residential tower behind it. It makes an impression from blocks away. The Australian sculptors (last name Shattner) think of it as "augmented reality" and style themselves "extraordinary public artists." They also see it as the first step in "merchandising" the circus act.

It does raise a serious question: how much can public spaces and public sculpture do? Not so very long ago, New York played it safe, with corporate plazas for obvious retreads of Modernism and Minimalism. Many of its makers have faded from memory, like Irving Marantz with his huddled Cubist figures on Park Avenue South or Arthur Carter with his interlocking ovals a few blocks north. Few would value the bronze sphere by Fritz Koenig had it not survived the World Trade Center. Others have produced crowd pleasures, like Robert Indiana with an incarnation of Love in midtown, Isamu Noguchi with his red cube in the financial district, or Bernard Rosenthal with his spinning black cube right there in Astor Place.

Still, times have changed. The Last Three arrived just as Ai removed his fences from the Cooper Union right next door, with a similarly ambitious but oblique political message. Summer after summer, people now look forward to sculpture in the parks and on the roof of the Met. Credit changing tastes and a growing audience for art, but also pioneering efforts by the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition and by Mark di Suvero in Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens. By the time the rhinos leave town, another round of summer sculpture will have begun. And the living rhinos may soon be gone.

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Ai Weiwei fenced New York in through February 18, 2018, Erwin Redl in Madison Square Park through March 25, and Gillie and Marc through May 31. A related review looks at Ai Weiwei outdoors and in retrospective.


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