Ai Weiwei Will Build Fences Around New York City to Protest Xenophobia

By Sameer Rao Mar 28, 2017

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei will make New York City the canvas for his newest work, using fences in protest against border walls and xenophobia.

The New York Times reported Sunday (March 26) that "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" will feature about 10 main installations that incorporate fences, plus many other smaller pieces throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The artist told The Times that he developed the project in response to American political culture’s "retreat from the essential attitude of openness," particularly with regard to the current focus on border closure.

"When the Berlin Wall fell, there were 11 countries with border fences and walls," he says. "By 2016, that number had increased to 70. We are witnessing a rise in nationalism, an increase in the closure of borders, and an exclusionary attitude towards migrants and refugees, the victims of war and the casualties of globalization."

The project takes its name from "Mending Wall," a 1914 poem by Robert Frost that portrays two neighbors building a stone fence as a metaphor for interpersonal isolation. The protagonist asks his neighbor why they must separate themselves from each other, to which the neighbor responds, "good fences make good neighbors."

Public Art Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing free and large-scale contemporary art to New York audiences, commissioned the work as part of its 40th anniversary. "This is the most ambitious [project] that we’ve undertaken since I’ve been here," Nicholas Baume, Public Art Fund’s director and chief curator since 2009, told The Times. "Certainly, it’s the most distributed throughout the city."

The artist built much of his international reputation on politically confrontational art and outspoken statements. As NPR reported in 2013, he developed two installations at Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum that were inspired by a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. The death of thousands of children in schools that collapsed during that disaster prompted him to lead a civilian investigation to compile the pupils’ names. He published those names on his blog, which the Chinese government promptly shut down. He told The Times in 2009 that police beat him in retaliation for the investigation, which apparently lead to a brain hemmorhage that required emergency surgery. A recent installation, "Laundromat," featured items discarded from a European refugee camp to showcase the human toll of political exclusion.