Refugee Barriers Infiltrate New York
Ai Weiwei lives his life in public: blogging his anger at the Chinese government, transforming his detention into harrowing dioramas, and now Instagramming up a storm from his exile in Berlin. Over the last two years, the artist-activist has been traveling to refugee camps from Greece to Iraq and Gaza to Myanmar, documenting the displacement of millions and the borders they are desperate to cross.
The crisis is the subject of “Human Flow,” Mr. Ai’s new film, and it also informs a gargantuan undertaking of new public artworks set throughout New York and united under the title “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.”
Construction of walls and fences has surged worldwide to deter unauthorized migration. Mr. Ai saw those barriers firsthand while filming “Human Flow.” Now he has brought them to New York.
In the Queens section of the city, Mr. Ai has encircled the Unisphere — the steel globe that’s the primary symbol of the 1964 World’s Fair — with a running mesh lattice that rises to about knee height. “Circle Fence” cannot be traversed; this is an insuperable border. Yet the nets’ soft and pliant forms, which you’re free to touch or sit upon, may put you in mind of fishermen or trapeze artists more than of guards and wardens.
There’s a similar tension between menace and shelter in a series of fences and barriers erected in Manhattan and behind bus stops in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
The strongest of Mr. Ai’s new sculptures is “Gilded Cage,” standing seven meters tall at an entrance to Central Park. This elegant, quietly ominous pavilion consists of an inner ring, inaccessible to viewers, fenced off by hundreds of soaring arched steel struts. A small section of the ring has been cut out, so you can walk into the heart of this pergola. Look up from inside, and the sculpture resolves into abstract beauty; look into the ring, and you’ll see its symmetry disrupted by turnstiles familiar from the New York subway, or United States-mexico border crossings.
The counterpart to “Gilded Cage” is the even taller “Arch,” which occupies nearly the whole space underneath the marble arch in Washington Square Park. This simpler, unpainted steel cage is pierced by a mirrored opening, its form suggestive of two conjoined figures who may appear to be wea-
Bridging all these works are two hundred lamppost banners, depicting immigrants and refugees — some of whom Mr. Ai photographed in Iraq, others snapped on his cell phone during his travels for “Human Flow,” and still more borrowed from historical sources. Rather than printing the images with ink, the artist used a laser cutter to remove the white space from each photograph; each banner, therefore, is a cutout negative of a refugee, and the sky and the city are visible through their faces.
Mr. Ai turned to direct advocacy in 2008, when he began his “Citizen’s Investigation” of the death toll of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, whose results are on view at the Guggenheim. Since then he has reoriented his sculpture, videos, and social media accounts to serve almost as a broadcast medium for freedom.
One of the great surprises of this citywide artistic outcry is that Mr. Ai’s obstructions — “very almostart, but maybe, maybe not,” as he told The New York Times — don’t actually disrupt the city much, but plug into the urban fabric with disturbing ease.
Passengers waiting for the bus on 125th Street behind Mr. Ai’s barricades went right on with their commutes. Tourists in Queens were taking selfies with a fence in frame. South of “Gilded Cage,” shoppers on Fifth Avenue wended through concrete obstacles around the president’s own tower. Mr. Ai’s citywide checkpoints are a hundred muted bells that add up to a deafening alarm: We have accepted so many physical and political limits that new ones go unnoticed, and we may not protest our shrinking freedom until it’s too late.