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Border Patrol

By Phebe Wahl

Photo Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio


As the immigration debate escalates, artist and activist Ai Weiwei breaks barriers and asks New Yorkers to consider our connections.

"MY FATHER WAS a poet, and he was purged during a political moment,” says artist and activist Ai Weiwei, whose five-borough exhibition Good Fences Make Good Neighbors can be spotted in more than 300 locations ranging from Central Park and Washington Square Park to Flushing Meadows. “He was sent to a remote area for 20 years. So I grew up in this very difficult situation, when you have to leave your home and go to another area. There was forced labor. People see you as a stranger. They don’t understand who you are. I had the same type of experience as a refugee,” he says.

For Weiwei, the issue is deeply personal. Raised amid revolutionary times in China, the artist was exiled with his family to Shihezi, Xinjiang Province. His father, once an acclaimed poet, was branded a political enemy and reduced to cleaning toilets. After migrating to Manhattan to study art in the 1980s, Weiwei experienced the isolation of New York City as an immigrant and later returned to China, where he employed social media and used his art as a platform to engage in discourse regarding political and social issues. His passion for such rhetoric and concern for the plight of displaced people led to his 2011 arrest and detention by the Chinese government.

Weiwei’s powerful political statement made possible by the Public Art Fund has punctuated our city since its installation in early October and will remain installed until Feb. 11. Inspired by the international migration crisis and corresponding controversial geopolitical debate, Weiwei employs the symbol of a security fence in large-scale, site-specific works. Local landmarks like the arch in Washington Square Park and the Unisphere at Flushing Meadows in Queens are transformed into spaces that ask us all to rethink whether these walls are perhaps a hinderance to the human experience.