NEW YORK (AFP) – He has worked his way through refugee camps, capturing the stories of migrants across the world. Now celebrated Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has brought the fruits of his labour to New York City, scattering over 300 works across the metropolis.
Weiwei’s most ambitious outdoor project to date, Good Fences Make Good Neighbours – which takes its name from a line in a poem by Robert Frost – will run until mid-February.
It’s a love letter of sorts to a city the artist, 60, called home from 1983 to 1993, and a new illustration of his empathy for refugees worldwide – stemming from his own experience of being exiled after his father, a poet, was branded an enemy of the Chinese state.
“I need to pay back my love,” Weiwei insisted at a press conference in Central Park, honouring
“a city [where] every young artist wants to be”, where “you never feel you are a foreigner”.
But the location of one of his large-scale works – a Gilded Cage installed at the southeast entrance of Central Park – is by no means a coincidence.
Visible from the heights of Trump Tower, where Donald Trump famously lived in a gold apartment, Weiwei says he “made it gold to please” the president, of whom he is a staunch critic.
“The travel ban, the wall to be built between the US and Mexico which is unthinkable policy,” the artist, who now lives between Berlin and Beijing, said.
“We are living at a time when there is no tolerance, divided – they are trying to separate us by colour, race, religion nationality…”
Weiwei’s citywide exhibition is a gesture welcomed by New York, something of a sanctuary in the midst of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration agenda.
“New York City is the perfect canvas for Ai Weiwei’s work,” New York’s Democratic mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement, adding his pieces “challenge us and can bring about social progress”.
The project – organised by the New York-based Public Art Fund – “draws attention to the unprecedented divisions in our political system (…) and confronts xenophobia,” his wife, Chirlane McCray, added.
Weiwei’s works, intertwined with the existing urban landscape, can be found not only in Manhattan, but also in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.
They range from monumental structures to 200 unique banners attached to lampposts in all five boroughs, and images of refugees displayed in spaces usually reserved for advertising.
Another cage – this time silver, arched, and reaching heights of some 12 metres – is located under the arch of Washington Square Park, a place with personal ties to Weiwei’s time living in New York.
Like the golden cage, which you can enter, a mirrored passage running underneath the arch represents an interactive element found in each of the exhibition’s cages and gratings – all re-imaginings of the ominous security fence.
As for China and its government, Weiwei, whose passport was seized until 2015, no longer seems to prioritise targeting them.
“More and more I realise that human rights is general, not only in China but everywhere,” he said. “We always have to see humanity as one… we are all connected.”