Ai Weiwei: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, New York

This fall and winter in New York featured an ambitious citywide art project by Ai Weiwei called Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. Through fences, cages, netting and other forms of “barrier”, Ai Weiwei well-known landmarks as well as quintessentially “New York” locations into expressions of global migration – a complex phenomenon that includes refugee crises around the world as well as the fights for and against immigration in our own country. While the large installations at Washington Square and Central Park perhaps get the most attention, they are also scattered in smaller locations that are part of daily life in the city. We at CatSynth attempted to track down all the major installations and compiled our experiences into this video.

The large sculptural pieces in Washington Square Park and Grand Army Plaza at the corner of Central Park were the most impressive as iconic.

[Grand Army Plaza / Central Park]

The cage at Grand Army Plaza is quite literal, an easily identified barrier between those in the cage and the rest of the city going about its business outside. Of course, one can freely enter and exit this cage at will. The mirrored piece that fills the Washington Square Arch is more abstract, with the silhouettes of human figures forming a welcoming portal in the midst of an imposing fence. This one was the most aesthetically beautiful for me, with its play on reflections and light from the surrounding city.

[Washington Square Arch]

Many smaller installations were scattered around the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood long associated with immigration and new arrivals to the United States. Indeed, the European Jewish side of my family settled in this neighborhood in the early 20th century, so it holds particular significance.

[Chrystie Street]

Ai Weiwei. #goodfencesmakegoodneighbors #NYC Essex Street Market

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

One could be forgiven for overlooking some of these (though the Essex Street Market installation is quite large). In fact, one at East 7th Street was just a narrow fence in the space between two apartment buildings. It took me a couple of minutes to locate it. And business at the boutiques and cafes at ground level went ahead seemingly oblivious.

We also made it to some of the installations in other boroughs, including the one surrounding the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.

[Unisphere – Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens]

The Unisphere is one of the remaining ruins from the 1968 Worlds Fair and with its positive (albeit cynical) message of global and international solidarity, its an apt setting for reflecting on the current migration crises and increasing nationalism worldwide. The borough of Queens has also involved since 1968 to become one of the most diverse places in the world.

And no artistic journey through the would be complete without Brooklyn. Fulton Mall – a section of Fulton Street closed to form a pedestrian mall and bus corridor – was the site of a series of installations adding fencing to some of the bus stops.

[Fulton Mall, Brooklyn]

One more Fulton Street Mall. Ai Weiwei #goodfencesmakegoodneighbors #brooklyn #NYC

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

Downtown Brooklyn has become an important part of my own experience of New York in the past decade, and it seems fitting to end here, where older discount stores and new high-rise condo buildings collide. We will have to see how this ultimately plays out…

We end in the Bronx, where this billboard on the Deegan Expressway may not be part of the official presentation, but it made for a fitting conclusion.

[Deegan Expressway (I-87), The Bronx]

Ai Weiwei: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors will be on display through February 18, 2018. You can read more about the project and its many locations here.

28 Chinese, Asian Art Museum.

Last week I finally had a chance to see 28 Chinese at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. It was in many ways an inspiring exhibit and I had been hoping to write about it earlier than today – a series of unfortunate personal matters have gotten in the way of that. But it is nonetheless worth reading about, and seeing if you can this afternoon or tomorrow before it closes.

28 Chinese presents the work of 28 contemporary Chinese artists working in a variety of media. It ” is the culmination of more than a decade’s worth of exploration and research by art collectors Don and Mera Rubell,” who met with 100 artists in China between 2001 and 2012 to learn about them and assemble works from their collection. The exhibition features famous artists like Ai Weiwei, but also up-and-coming artists such as Lu Wei, whose large-scale oil-on-canvas work Liberation No. 1 was among my favorites in the show.

Lu Wei.  Liberation No 1. Oil on Canvas
[Liberation No. 1, 2013, by Liu Wei (Chinese, b. 1972). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Liu Wei.]

It depicts a colorful and unfathomably dense urban landscape, even beyond what I experienced in Shanghai in 2009. It might be disquieting to some, but I find it welcoming. Lu Wei used computer software to generate the patterns which we then rendered as oil on canvas. Another work that made use of mathematical processes to direct traditional painting practice was Shang Yixin’s acrylic work 1061.

Shang Yixin.  1061.  Acrylic on Canvas.

[1061, by Shang Yixini (Chinese, b. 1980). Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Shang Yixin. Photo by CatSynth (Instagram)]

The artist uses the the square as the fundamental building block in all of his paintings. He uses precise rules to generate the patterns of colored squares, which result in different images each time. It seems he must be using stencils or edges to get such precise shapes and textures from acrylic.

An equally modernist but very different type of painting could be found in Zhu Jinshi’s Black and White Summer Palace – Black. The paint was applied using trowels to create a thick and presumably quite heavy topographical structure. It brought to mind the incredibly heavy painting The Rose by Jay DeFao.

Black and White Summer Palace – Black by Zhu Jinshi
[Black and White Summer Palace – Black by Zhu Jinshi (Chinese, b. 1954). Image from The Asian Art Museum’s Tumblr.]

There were quite a few interesting sculptural and conceptual works in the exhibition. One of the highlights was Zhu Jinshi’s monumental installation, Boat. It composed entirely of layered calligraphy paper and bamboo rods suspended from the ceiling. It was over 40 feet long, and visitors could walk inside of it.

Boat, 2012, by Zhu Jinshi (Chinese, b. 1954). Xuan paper, bamboo, and cotton thread
[Boat, 2012, by Zhu Jinshi (Chinese, b. 1954). Xuan paper, bamboo, and cotton thread. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Zhu Jinshi. Photo by CatSynth (Instagram)]

Not as large in size, but also quite monumental in its weight was Ai Weiwei’s conceptual sculpture A Ton of Tea, which literally was a ton of tea compressed into a cube.

A Ton of Tea, by Ai Weiwei
[A Ton of Tea, by Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957). Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami. © Ai Weiwei. Photo by CatSynth (Instagram)]

The setting for this piece and many others was inventive juxtaposition by the museum of works in the exhibition with the more traditional pieces from their permanent collection. The contemporary works stood quite a part from the traditional, but was interesting to see a few thousand years of Chinese artist practice all together.

One more surprising and intense conceptual work was He Xiangyu’s installation Cola Project, in which he boiled down 127 tons of Coca Cola to create a highly corrosive black residue. He used this as an ink to create traditional Chinese ink-on-paper drawings. In addition to the drawings, the installation featured a case of the rather disturbing substance, and the even more disturbing photos and videos from the worksite where large industrial cauldrons were creating it. The scene suggested a poorly regulated industrial site, and the room was filled with an odor of burnt caramel (probably emitted from the drawings). It was a rather intense work. And fortunately I am not fond of cola.

Like any good exhibition, this one inspired me in my own artist ideas – especially the two-dimension works. It also made me reminisce about my adventures at galleries and art districts in urban China, such as Shanghai’s Moganshan Road, which I’m sure has changed in the 6 years since I was last there.

28 Chinese is on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through tomorrow, Sunday, August 16. If you are in the area I recommend checking it out.