Renowned artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei has recently launched a large-scale public art exhibition in New York City called Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, which explores borders and nationalism. Inspired by the international migration crisis, the exhibition consists of 300 installations around the city, all using the motif of ‘security fences’ as a powerful social and artistic symbol. In addition to these pieces, Weiwei has developed a series of 200 banners that appear in all five boroughs on lampposts. The banners feature portraits of immigrants from different periods, photographs of notable refugees, images from Weiwei’s studio, and cell phone photos taken by the artist at refugee camps around the world.
Ai Weiwei has been named the most powerful artist in the world by ArtReview magazine. He’s also been called the most dangerous man in China. When Ai lived in China, he was an outspoken critic of the regime and a human rights advocate, which led to his imprisonment, abduction and beatings. Having grown up amid the upheavals of the cultural revolutions in china, Ai has developed a particular empathy with displaced people — circumstances which led him to address the topic of ‘fences’.
Over the past years, Ai traveled to refugee camps across the globe and dedicated much of his practice to bringing attention to the plight of displaced people, many of whom are victims of war or acts of terror. This year, his documentary on the refugee crisis, called Human Flow, premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and he recently covered a concert house in refugee life jackets in an art installation. In many ways, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors is the culmination of Ai Weiwei’s work to date. It grows out of his personal experience of ‘otherness,’ his distinguished practice as both artist and architect, as well as his intensive research on the international refugee crisis and global rise of nationalism.
“If my art has nothing to do with people’s pain and sorrow, what is ‘art’ for?” – Ai Weiwei
Ai has said in an interview: “Fences or territories always relate to us and our attitude towards others. In the US, there are policies to limit refugees and trying to push away people who made a great contribution to society, trying to build a wall between US and Mexico, which is an unthinkable policy. Any kind of wall is ridiculous, even with the Great Wall of China, it never really worked. It shows a kind of narrow minded ideas to divide people and create some kind of hatred between people. There is no tolerance, it’s divided and trying to separate us by color, race, religion and nationality. It’s going backwards against freedom, humanity and our understanding of our time.”
Ai Weiwei is unique in having combined the roles of preeminent contemporary artist, political dissident, and human rights activist in such a prominent and powerful way. He is one of the artists brave enough to make art with a message, and the message of his latest art exhibition is an important one. In the wake of new policies on immigration and border control, Good Fences Makes Good Neighbors is a powerful comment on the political divisiveness and the rise of anti-immigrant nationalism. It is a reminder to those feeling safe in their country that most of the world doesn’t enjoy the same luxury.