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Ai Weiwei Takes on the Migrant Crisis

The artist's massive new work "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" examines the plight of refugees. But can it change public opinion?

Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

In 2015, the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach, where it was captured by photographer Nilufer Demir. Like Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation in 1963 or the lone man facing down a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the photograph quickly became a visual synecdoche for the horrors of the global migrant crisis. A year later, the globally renowned artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei would make waves for his own recreation of that iconic image. He restaged the photograph with himself in the boy’s place, in an attempt to leverage his own considerable celebrity to highlight the migrant crisis. But the piece, like so much of Ai’s work, drew criticism: some claimed that by posing as the boy, he was unfairly comparing his own situation—as a dissident who faces political persecution in his native China—to that of the boy. In other words, people thought that Ai was making it about him. At a Berlin fundraiser in 2016, he caused further controversy by having a roomful of socialites take selfies while wearing reflective gold foil blankets, the kind that are distributed to refugees by aid organizations. The gestures were blunt, and both turned on inserting himself and other powerful, wealthy people like him into the frame. Perhaps this kind of project is is ultimately effective in raising awareness about a phenomenon that has forcibly displaced over 65 million people. It’s hard to tell.

Ai’s newest undertaking is Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, a gargantuan series of site-specific installations commissioned by NYC’s Public Art Fund. It features 300 works dispersed across all five boroughs, and includes three massive public sculptures and 15 smaller, building-mounted chainlink fence installations. The rest of the works are found on lampposts, newsstands, bus shelters, and LinkNYC kiosks. As the title suggests (it is taken from Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall), the project centers on the fence as a symbol of borders and migration, and harkens not so subtly to President Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. This imagery of walls and fences recurs throughout the 300 works. Bus shelters and lamppost banners feature metal sheets, laser-cut so as to suggest a wire fence. On other pieces, some banners bear the faces of immigrants across history, from anarchist Emma Goldman to Ellis Island migrants to images of refugees from Ai’s own research trips to refugee camps. Cutouts in these pieces make the surrounding sky, trees, and urban fabric visible, enabling the casual viewer to look through and past them.

The banners’ chain-link effect is echoed in the project’s largest piece, Circular Fence, installed around the Unisphere in Flushing, Queens. The Unisphere, a stainless steel globe with contour lines denoting elevation and crossed rings to suggest orbiting rockets, was built for the 1964 World’s Fair as a hopeful monument to unity, humanity, and space travel. Never one for subtlety, Ai nods to the current moment of xenophobic isolationism by erecting a twisted, ropey wormhole of fence around the sphere’s perimeter. This mesh netting is taut and springy enough to function as a playground, bench, or comfortable hammock upon which to lie back and think about Brexit. The effect is not on the nose so much as it swings at it with a hammer, like in a fairground strongman contest.

I headed towards Central Park to visit the second major sculpture, the rather beautiful Gilded Cage, which is exactly what it sounds like: a massive, arched golden cage. From a distance its bars look like the brittle filaments inside lightbulbs, and they are painted a shimmery yellow that picks up both the passing taxis and the rather more menacing glint of the nearby Trump Tower.

Herein lies the tension that suffuses the works in Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: The piece is about freedom of movement and the humanity of migrants and refugees, but it is in one of the world’s wealthiest and most surveilled cities, where the forces of oppression and displacement are on full display alongside the piece’s loud, unsubtle calls for their downfall. The third of the three major installations, Arch, is in Washington Square Park, where a huge silver cage under the arch honoring George Washington bears a cut out in the shape of two huddled figures. Visitors can walk through them. This, combined with Circular Fence—near the Unisphere’s monument to a globalist future—and Gilded Cage—in the shadow of Trump Tower—puts Ai’s piece in conversation with American history in ways that are difficult to ignore.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing: There is some profitable discomfort to be had in the incongrous choices of locations. In the heavy-handedness of the work  Ai does offer another, more personal narrative grounded in the decade he spent living in NYC from the 1980s to 1990s. He came to the city for art school and later dropped out, living without a valid visa. He sold T-shirts in Flushing Meadows Park and sketched quick portraits at Washington Square Park, spending much of his time in the area; another smaller metal fence is installed at the Seventh Street address where he once lived in a basement apartment. The funhouse-mirrored passageway, installed under Arch, pays homage to one of the artist’s heroes, Marcel Duchamp: Arch’s cutout silhouette recreates the door that Duchamp designed for André Breton’s surrealist gallery Gradiva, which opened in Paris in 1937. 

This Duchampian inflection has long been present in Ai’s practice, except here it is the fabric of the city itself that becomes repurposed as a readymade. You could even say that American history and its racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia are also a readymade parts of Ai’s work. With his massive monuments to the migrant crisis scattered throughout the city, and in particular at places of historical significance, these elements of the American past are thrown into sharp relief. Two fence installations at Chrystie and Bowery streets straddle the site of the Second African Burial Ground.  A bus shelter covered in a wire mesh material reminds me of the buses used to transport prisoners to American prisons. The inaccessible turnstiles of Gilded Cage suggest Giuliani’s ‘broken windows’ policing, while the mesh fences (“Five Fences”) installed in the arched windows of Cooper Union’s former Foundation Building remind the viewer that the venerable institution is no longer tuition-free for all. Even the bars of Arch in Washington Square Park mirror the metal NYPD portable barricades stacked a few feet away. But it’s worth wondering whether the piece will have its intended effect of sparking public reflection on the global migrant crisis. With New York being far from both the Mediterranean passage and the U.S.’s militarized border with Mexico, it’s hard to pinpoint how exactly New Yorkers are meant to reflect on the role that their country has played in creating those refugee flows in the first place.

Ai Weiwei is a complicated, compromised artist: He is world-famous, known as much for his love of selfies and big-ticket corporate sponsorship as his dissidence, and he has regularly traded on his politics and his proximity to the suffering of less-famous dissidents to become the success that he is. But Ai is himself a political refugee, the product of a long family history of suppression and exile. His own vocal opposition to human rights violations in his native China saw him abducted, beaten, jailed, and stripped of his passport in 2011 and sentenced to house arrest for the following four years. It’s hard to doubt that his commitment to freedom of movement and immigrant rights are sincere. His recent projects have included covering a Viennese palace pond in life jackets, closing a Danish exhibition three months early in protest of a new law that allows the government to seize valuables from refugees, and spending two years visiting refugee camps and border crossing to gather footage for his documentary Human Flow, which opened in theaters last weekend. But sometimes it is difficult to distinguish his solidarity from opportunism. 

These days, Ai’s social media feed is full of selfies. He loves the form. The photos provide him with proximity to glamour—he poses with Madonna, with Elton John—and to controversy—with Julian Assange, with Chelsea Manning. But one of his most famous self-portraits is from 2009. He stands before a mirror in a German hospital, which he fled to after being severely beaten by flunkies of the Chinese government. His belly strains the limp hospital gown. He is holding a small plastic bag of his own blood: After his beating, it was drained from his head.