DIY NYC Walking Tour: Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

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Stories November 19, 2019 DIY NYC Walking Tour: Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

“I know our president likes gold, so this is really for his appreciation”

-Ai Weiwei, Democracy Now

You can’t miss the giant golden birdcage in Central Park East.

It looms large above the Barney’s shoppers, panicked Apple Store customers, and frazzled tourists looking for the Plaza.

You can enter the cage via golden turnstiles, reminiscent of a subway entrance, minus the grime, and look up through the bars at the Fifth Avenue skyline. It’s beautiful, but also impossible to forget that you are in a cage. Which is kind of the artist’s point.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a political dissident, Instagram addict, and former New Yorker, recently debuted a 300 piece public art installation, titled “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” throughout New York City. The materials and size of the pieces in this exhibition vary from street banners to large sculptures, but all were made to draw attention to the ongoing refugee crisis.

There are currently 65.6 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, more than there were during World War II. This is neither a temporary, nor a regional issue to Ai Weiwei, but a global problem that “will get bigger.” The immense undertaking that is this exhibit is only a portion of the artist’s ongoing effort to bring awareness to this issue and call the public to action.

The series is anchored by three large sculptures, a border wall in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a 40-foot-tall mirrored passageway in Washington Square Park, and a gold bird cage in Central Park, not far from Trump Tower.

The exhibition is spread out throughout all five boroughs. Seeing the entirety of the exhibition in one day would require a ton of walking and an ambitious amount of faith in the New York Subway System.

Lucky for us, Ai Weiwei chose to cluster a large portion of the exhibition throughout his old stomping grounds in the Lower East Side, East Village, and Washington Square Park. Ai lived in the East Village during his ten years in New York City, spending his time taking over 10,000 photographs, going to every gallery opening that he could, and chilling with Allen Ginsberg (nbd). He placed several pieces of the exhibition here to honor his time in NYC and celebrate the neighborhood’s immigrant history.

A walking tour of the work in this neighborhood takes about two hours and is a great way to spend a fall afternoon in NYC. This build-your-own-tour guide lends some insight into the context of the pieces, shares some hot gossip about the neighborhood, and gets a little down and dirty with Ai Weiwei history, because the dude is a global treasure.

Where to start

Essex Street Market: A farmers’ market before it was cool

Ever tried to make a favorite recipe without all of the ingredients? Anyone who has celebrated Thanksgiving in a foreign country knows the struggle is real. Making a pumpkin pie from scratch is no joke. The taste of home can be hard to find in a country that doesn’t have the same culinary palette as yours, which is what makes Essex Street Market so dope.

Essex Street Market has created the opportunity for immigrants to have that taste of home from 1818 to today.

From the late 1800s to the early 1900s the LES ranks swelled with huge waves of immigrants. A deficit developed between the number of residents and places to purchase foodstuffs. All of the grocery stores were located uptown and the “grog shops” were the only places that sold food. However those were places where working men would go for basic provisions and a hard drink, so as one could imagine, the emphasis was not really on quality food. In response to this deficit, merchants took to the streets and sold their wares from thousands upon thousands of pushcarts. These pushcarts created a way to have a taste of the familiar for all of these families arriving in the new world. In a way, it was a daily moveable feast for immigrants and a celebration the world’s cuisine.

The current Essex Market was opened in 1940, as part of a larger effort by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to get pushcarts off the streets. Sanitation issues and the need to clear the streets for those newfangled automobiles created a demand for the removal of the street vendors. They were relocated to Essex St and the new market became a place for immigrants to gather, share ideas, and stock their fridge. Today, all of the market’s 28 stalls are still owned by small, independent businessmen and women. You can satisfy your craving for everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, to a vast array of prepared food – including handmade spanakopita and Japanese okonomiyaki – to specialty items like raw milk cheese and imported prosciutto.

The Essex Street Market will be relocated to Essex Crossing in the summer of 2018. Ai Weiwei’s piece, which may be found above the Essex Street entrance to the Market, is part of an influx of art celebrating the immigrant history of the current location.

This particular piece, titled Exodus, draws on Greek motifs to depict the journey of refugees today. Forced displacement is an epic problem and one Ai asserts has been going on since time immemorial. The banner above Essex Street market asks us to think about the journey refugees undergo in search of safe harbour, “driven by threats to their survival and also by hope.” The piece is marked by whimsical imagery; clouds, butterflies, flowers, to depict the power of imagination to find joy in times of duress. Ai likely chose Essex Street Market as a location for the piece because it continues to be a hub for diverse and international communities, or maybe he just really likes gefilte fish.

From there:

Chrystie St Between Rivington and Stanton

The most challenging part of this piece is finding it.

Located on top of a former sign factory and current night club, the Chrystie Street fence stretches unobtrusively across the roof of the building. At first glance, the piece doesn’t look like much; it’s underwhelming at best.

One observer of the installation commented:

“So, is that what you’re going to hang the paintings on?”

A similar structure on Bowery, a few blocks over, elicits a similar response. The seemingly innocuous nature of the installation is kind of the point. The work is supposed to blend into the surrounding architecture, to reflect how easily these barriers enter into existing structures.

The Public Art Fund’s Chief Curator Nicholas Baume stated, Ai’s works show “what we have thought was open can suddenly be closed.”

Ai Weiwei has a long and storied history of making art that sneaks up on you.

His first sneakily subversive project was a series of self-portraits that depicted Ai in front of various national monuments. To take the photos, Ai would stand in front of a historic site (like the Forbidden City), and unbutton his shirt to reveal the word “F*ck,” written in red ink across his chest, not-so-quietly subverting the sometimes blind reverence we have for historic sites. However, one of his most interesting pieces of dissent was made shortly before his arrest in 2011.

The grass-mud horse is an important symbol in China’s online dissident culture. The creature’s name, in Chinese, sounds very similar to a foul obscenity. Pictures and videos of the creature have been used to impishly mock the Chinese government’s censors since 2009.

That same year, Ai Weiwei released a photo of himself jumping in the air, completely nude, with a stuffed grass-mud horse covering his dirty bits. It turns out that “grass-mud horse covering the middle” in Chinese, is a homophone with “f*ck your mother Chinese Communist Party.”

This photo went viral and was one of his several acts of subversion against the Chinese government that led to his arrest in 2011. When Ai was released several months later, he faced a hefty fine that was paid by fans’ donations.  As a way to thank his supporters, he made a video of himself singing about the grass-mud horse. The artist’s grass-mud horse obsession has been critiqued as stale and insubstantial, but from our perspective, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.

Head North Along 2nd Ave

Notice the Banners?

Lamppost banners in NYC are a familiar part of the city’s visual landscape. These banners are usually hung to celebrate neighborhood anniversaries or events, like the Halloween Dog Parade in the West Village.

Ai Weiwei has co-opted the banners for less whimsical usage- displaying portraits of refugees past and present. These images include famous refugees from history (Josephine Baker and Victor Hugo may be seen on this route), photos taken by Ellis Island clerk Augustus Sherman, and photos of contemporary refugees. Ai captured many of the portraits on his iPhone at refugee camps like Shariya, Lesvos, and Dadaab while filming his documentary Human Flow.

The banners of famous people from history make a clear point – what if limits on immigration are keeping out someone extraordinary like Baker or Hugo? 

However, the Ellis Island pictures are perhaps more potent images, because someone shouldn’t have to be a brilliant novelist to reach safety. The people in the Ellis Island images are the ones who made this country what it is today, simply by coming here and opening up a shop on 3rd street or taking a job at a sign factory on Chrystie. The banners make a certain demand of their viewers, to see the faces as more than statistics, to see them as fellow human beings.

Ai has put a touch of the personal in this part of the installation, placing a portrait of his father on one of the banners.

Ai Qing was one of the most well-known poets in China, a friend and favorite of Mao Zedong. The poet fell out of favor when he critiqued the government in print during the purge of intellectuals in China. In 1958, Qing and his family were sent to a hard labor camp in the provinces. He spent the next twenty-plus years emptying latrines and so forth as part of his “mental correction” for Wrong Thought under Mao.

Ai Weiwei spent 20 years with his father in exile, facing the degradation and hardship that came with that. Ai Wei Wei’s own classmates, during the madness of the Cultural Revolution, would beat his father. When asked to reflect on this part of his life, Ai Weiwei said he saw then “how human society can become so unspeakable.”  However, even having seen the potential outcomes of a life of dissent, Ai chose to follow in his father’s footsteps and became an intellectual and outspoken dissident as well.

While You Walk:

What’s up with the title?

The title of the exhibition, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” is cribbed from the Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall.”

The poem goes like this: The narrator, a New England farmer, contacts his neighbor in the spring to rebuild the stone wall between their two farms. While they are making the repairs to the wall, he notes twice that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” but his neighbor replies twice with the proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  As with Frost’s most famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” “Mending Wall” is often quoted but rarely understood, it was famously misquoted by Sarah Palin in 2010. Like so much of Frost’s poetry, “Mending Wall” fools the reader with its bucolic imagery.

The political connotations of the word “wall” are likely pretty familiar,  unless you’ve been buried under a rock since 2015. Donald Trump’s grand plan to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico has been in the local and global spotlight for some time now. Frost’s poem has been used for quippy political commentary by both proponents and opponents of the border wall.

This begs the question- which side used the quote correctly? Those that advocate “good fences” or those that “don’t love a wall?”

Well, Frost has observed the public reaction to the ambiguity of the poem with delight.

“People are frequently misunderstanding it or misinterpreting it,” Frost said of “Mending Wall, “The secret of what it means I keep.”

So we’ll never know what Frost intended when writing the poem, but we do know, given the subject of the exhibition, that Ai Weiwei clearly interprets the poem as a warning against barriers and borders.

Ai Weiwei’s father penned a startlingly similar poem to that of Frosts’ in 1979, titled “Wall”. The poem plays on the same theme as “Mending Wall” but abandons Frost’s ambiguity.

A wall is like a knife
It slices a city in half
One half is on the east
The other half is on the west

The connection between the poems can be interpreted as simply a cool coincidence. However, Ai tends to be pretty stinking intentional about the details of his art. It might make the Frost reference more accessible to interpret it through the lens of Qing’s poem. This gets us to the core of Ai Weiwei’s intention behind creating the exhibition. The series is a response to the rise of nationalism around the world and uses the recurring motif of fences to get us thinking about the different images we associate with them.

Speaking of Fences

There’s another one on 7th St, just off 2nd Ave.

Just east of 2nd avenue a small fence stretches between two buildings. This seemingly random location actually holds the strongest tie to Ai Weiwei’s history in New York – it is just above the basement apartment he used to live in.

He arrived in NYC in 1983 to study at Parsons. The school wasn’t a good fit, he dropped out after less than a year, but he continued living in the city for a decade. He initially made a living selling T-shirts, gardening, drawing portraits on the street for tourists, and even gambling (he became well known among blackjack circles).

While in New York, he discovered his love for photography, taking mirror selfies before they were cool. He took 10,000 pictures during his decade in the city, transitioning from selfies to street photography.

During the Tompkins Square Riot of 1988, Ai captured images of police brutality and eventually made a name for himself selling pictures of the clashes between police and protesters to the New York Times, Daily News, and New York Post. These years in NYC were clearly formative for the artist as he continued to use photography as a medium of dissent upon his return to China.

Today, the man is still obsessed with taking pictures, and now has the platform to share these photos en masse.

He posts on Instagram compulsively and his feed has recently been filled with selfies of him and the New Yorkers visiting his installations. In a recent interview with the Times, Ai Weiwei commented that he was “hopelessly in love with this city” and this exhibition is “for the people of New York.”

So if this exhibit is speaking to you, you can let Ai Weiwei know by using one of his favorite forms of expression: take a selfie and tag him in it.

Head West to Astor Place

The northern portico of Cooper Union has been transformed.

The large archways that mark the distinct architecture of Cooper Union have been covered by fences. It looks unequivocally like a prison gate.

As a political activist, Ai Weiwei has often used his art to comment on the Chinese government and human rights issues. During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake many government-constructed schools collapsed, killing more than 5,000 students. The shoddy, substandard construction of the buildings was highlighted by parents of the victims as a prime example of local government corruption and mismanagement.  Parents who demanded accountability were either detained or discouraged from speaking out.

In a series of blog posts, Ai Weiwei pressured the government to name the students who were killed and release information about the location of the students when they died. This call by was met with silence and Ai Weiwei’s blog was taken down. In response the artist set up a Citizen’s Investigation, enlisting the help of his large fan base to collect the names of students and details of their schools and families.

In September of 2009, Ai released a video in tribute to the victims, listing the 4,851 name gathered by the volunteers. That same month, he installed a huge exhibition in Munich, covering a building with 9,000 children’s backpacks, bringing global attention to an event the Chinese government had wanted to keep under wraps.

A month later Ai published the aforementioned grass-mud horse picture, further provoking the Chinese government. In April of 2011, he was detained and held for 81 days, purportedly because he was under investigation for “economic crimes.” During this time he was interrogated 50 times and subjected to dismal living conditions. Upon his release, the government held Ai Weiwei’s passport, preventing him from leaving the country, and levied a $2.4 million fine against him.

Ai Weiwei was permitted to leave China in 2015 and has since been living in a kind of exile in Berlin. His imprisonment made a clear mark on his work, inspiring several exhibitions since 2011. In 2016, he opened an installation in Cuenca, Spain that used wax figures, like a twisted Madame Tusseau’s, to depict scenes from his imprisonment.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Ai Weiwei was asked what he would be if he didn’t have a drive for dissent, or an oppressive force to rally against. He responded:

“Without all the yelling, without the prison, the beatings, just what would I be?”

The trials that he has been put through, and the defiantly optimistic response he has to them, are what make Ai such a compelling artist to follow.  Although his exhibitions frequently address subject matter that makes one angry or uncomfortable, there remains an undeniable buoyancy and, often, playfulness in his presentation. The Cooper Union piece looks daunting, but there is a thrilling sense of the subversive, of impishness that is inherent in the entire exhibition.

And nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the large-scale installation in Washington Square Park.

Head West towards Washington Square Park

We’ll talk about the giant shiny statue in a minute. But first: a brief history of a chess player.

If you read a very serious art history review of “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” the author will wax poetic about the influence of Marcel Duchamp. This is not a very serious art history review, but Duchamp is kind of hilarious so we’ll touch on him briefly. Duchamp,  born in 1887, was the father of modern art, a precursor to the Surrealist movement, and the first troll of the art world.

Duchamp was not interested in what he referred to as “retinal art,” or art that can only be engaged with visually. Instead, he made art that he found to be conceptually interesting. In this way, he challenged the boundaries of what could be considered art. In 1913, he began creating pieces that he referred to as “ready-mades,” a term used to distinguish factory-made goods from homemade ones.

The Tate Modern describes the ready-mades as “associated with an assault on the conventional understanding of the nature and status of art.” This is a fancy art history way of saying that Duchamp liked to take an object that wouldn’t normally be considered art, present them as art, and watch the art critics squirm.

Some of his most notable pieces include a urinal that he titled “Fountain” and a coat rack, titled “Trap.” He placed the latter in the corner of an art gallery opening party, and it went entirely unnoticed as a piece of art. Duchamp was a cheeky bastard in both his work and political life, his subversion of the Nazi government might even have given Ai Weiwei pause. During the Paris occupation, he posed as a cheese merchant, making several trips in and out of the city in this disguise, to smuggle his art to safe harbor.

Ai Weiwei takes Duchamp’s ready-made concept one huge step further- he refers to the entirety of New York City as his ready-made. With this exhibition, he is turning the entire city into a work of art. Ai brings the Duchamp love home with a clear visual reference to one of Duchamp’s most famous works- the Door for Gradiva. Both pieces feature a cutout of larger than life two figures that the viewer must pass through. Duchamp designed this piece in 1937 as the entranceway for Surrealist powerhouse Andre Breton’s gallery in Paris.

It is no coincidence that the sculpture inspired by Duchamp was placed in Washington Square Park. When Duchamp fled Paris to NYC in 1942, he took a semi-retirement from art and spent the bulk of his time playing chess at the famous boards in Washington Square Park. Ai Weiwei’s piece serves as a fitting tribute to the number of immigrant artists, himself included, who have found a creative home in Washington Square Park.

Big Finale

Let’s Talk about that Giant Silver Birdcage

Passing under the Washington Square Arch has been an awe-inspiring experience since it was built in 1892. With his new installation, and the final piece of our tour, Ai Weiwei has altered that experience. The piece looms over the viewer and the initial sight of the cage is jarring. It almost looks like the passage through the arch is obstructed.

However, the human silhouettes offer a path through the arch, which is, perhaps, an offer of human acceptance as an alternative to borders and barriers. We can get deeper into the symbolism of this imagery; but we promised you, the reader, some hot gossip.

It turns out that when you put a giant art installation in the middle of a public park, someone will inevitably get salty about it.

The most controversial element of this piece is not, it turns out, the politics behind it, but where it is placed.

In August 2017, the Washington Square Association (WSA) released a statement in opposition to the installation. The group requested that the Public Art Fund withdraw plans to build under the arch. In the statement, the WSA takes issue with the structure for three reasons: the lack of community input, the politicization and debasement of the arch’s “integrity of design,” and the displacement of the Christmas Tree.

Let’s break this down a bit.

The desire for community input is completely understandable. The installation is a very visible disruption to the neighborhood’s landscape. However, the Public Art Fund began community outreach in June, hosting open forums for public feedback, gaining the support of groups like the Landmark Preservation Commission, and presented its plans to a community board in September.

Furthermore, the entire exhibition was crowdfunded on Kickstarter. Members of the public, those who will be visiting these pieces from all over world during the next four months, donated enough to surpass the Fund’s fundraising goals by $16,000. The grassroots nature of the installation’s funding is fitting for a project designed to address a global issue like the refugee crisis. The piece celebrates the egalitarian and immigrant history of the park and Washington Square Arch, which has never belonged solely to those who live next door to it, but is an image treasured by New Yorkers and tourists from all over the world.

Then there is the concern that the installation will detract from the physical beauty of the arch.

The preciousness about preserving the sanctity of the arch is a little silly considering that I have personally seen an NYU student urinate on it while chugging a Tecate. Furthermore, the integrity of the design cannot be separated from the absolute lack of integrity held by the arch’s designer Standford White. The man designed many iconic buildings around the city, and is largely remembered for his accomplishments in architecture. However, his proclivity for non-consensual sex with the young actresses in the musical revues he produced established him as a figure to be neither admired or exalted. That aside, the Washington Square Association wrote about a fear that this exhibition would set a precedent of co-opting the city’s monuments for future art installations.

We love public art at Museum Hack, so we aren’t terribly concerned by that thought; in fact it sounds a bit exciting. More art can only result in a greater influx of ideas and conversations that are healthy for a community. But if you disagree with us and regard public art as unnecessary and distracting, it is inarguable that Good Fences Make Good Neighbors is the first to set this precedent. The Public Art Fund installed a waterfall that plunged off of the Brooklyn Bridge in 2008, and the exhibitions at the Socrates Sculpture Garden in Queens, as well as the annual commission series on the Highline, have been going on for years.

The Washington Square Park Association was also spooked by the political nature of Ai Weiwei’s installation. Which is odd considering that earlier this year, the Washington Square Park Association celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first politicization of the arch.

On January 23, 1917 six artists (Duchamp included) opened the side door on the western end of the arch, climbed the stairs and had a champagne-fueled picnic in the top room. The group was led by the first hipster poet, Gertrude Dick, who was nicknamed Woe (short for Woe is me). The Bohemians lit a fire on the roof, tied balloons and lanterns to the exterior of the arch, and fired cap guns out the windows- all in the name of declaring Greenwich Village a free and independent republic. Those six drunken fools did have a serious goal in mind. They were attempting to separate the liberal enclave of the Village from the capitalist haven that was the rest of New York City at the time.  What did this group call themselves? The Arch-conspirators. A great reminder that you’re never too deep in the resistance to make dad jokes.

The Washington Square Association encourages us not to look down on this event as a mere instance of “a group of hooligans breaking park rules” but to instead look at the event “from a historical perspective.” The event drew even greater numbers of artists, radicals, and intellectuals to the park to share stories, ideas, and glasses of wine. There is a mass of tourists and locals alike who have flocked to view Ai Weiwei’s installation. A look at the discussions those viewers are having both on social media and in person about the work and the crisis it alludes to clues us into the fact that this piece might be achieving a similar result. That giant birdcage may very likely be viewed in a positive light by people looking back at the event from a “historical perspective” 100 years from now.

Finally, the problem of the Great Displaced Christmas Tree of 2017 is an easy fix; it’s a large park, there is another spot for the tree somewhere in it. The Public Art Fund has also agreed to pay for the relocation of the tree to wherever the Association deems fit. Also, there are quite a few comments to be made about the Association’s concern about the politicization of the Arch while simultaneously arguing for the innately political act of placing a Christmas Tree in a public park in one of the most diverse cities in the world. However, that is fodder for an entirely separate article.

Ai Weiwei’s reaction to all this?

I think it’s fantastic.”

The man loves a dialogue, he thrives on making art that prompts conversation, challenge, and analysis. The response of the Washington Square Park Association and ensuing public reaction is directly in line with Ai Weiwei’s goals. As a result of this piece, people in the community and beyond have been talking to each other about their values and beliefs, offering solutions to and criticisms of today’s issues. If you, the reader, want to to be part of this conversation- great news, there are several ways for you to do this.

This first has already been mentioned, you can take a selfie in front of an installation and tag Ai Weiwei on Instagram. The New York Times referred to the tourists and locals taking selfies in the reflection of the Washington Square installation as “woke narcissists.” However, the influx of selfie takers are engaging with the work in a way that the artist would greatly appreciate.

The second way you can engage with the work is through the Public Art Fund’s website. The Fund is collecting stories of immigrants and refugees in the United States from both past and present. If you have a story that you want to share, you can submit here.

Finally, you can continue the dialogue that Ai Weiwei encourages. This can take many forms: a call to your representative, a donation to the International Rescue Committee, or a conversation with someone who may have a varying opinion to yours. Whatever you decide to do, try to do it in the spirit of the work you just saw, with a sense of joy and a willingness to take a risk.

written with 💖 by Kylie Holloway

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