Refugee Bar­ri­ers In­fil­trate New York

Paper Boy - - Life/Style - BY JA­SON FARGO

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-

ry trav­el­ers.

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.

Ai Wei­wei’s refugee project shows a ten­sion be­tween men­ace and shel­ter, and in­cludes ‘‘Gilded Cage,’’ and ‘‘Arch,” be­low.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY VIN­CENT TULLO FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

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