Hidden in plain sight: a migrant crisis we refuse to confront

“I made the sculpture gold to please him,” said Ai Weiwei at a recent press conference. By placing the “Gilded Cage” just a couple blocks away from Trump Tower, in the southeast corner of Central Park, Ai, the internationally acclaimed Chinese artist, hopes to catch one particular man’s attention. Curious onlookers can walk inside the golden sculpture, oddly feeling as though they are trapped behind its bars and turnstiles. On view until February 2018, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” is a city-wide installation presented by the Public Art Fund, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to displaying contemporary art in New York City’s public spaces. The installation hopes to bring greater awareness to the refugee crisis and confronts a growing hostility towards immigrants.

Record global migration started in 2015, with a majority of refugees escaping violence in Syria and flooding into Europe. An ocean away, Americans have experienced the crisis through soundbites and snapshots; most impactful has been the photo of drowned Syrian refugee toddler, Alan Kurdi. Yet, coverage of the migrant crisis has faded briskly as insensitive, perhaps immoral, political decisions are debated in the Western world. In October, the European Union unveiled its new containment policy, which involves exporting migrants to Africa and paying countries like Niger and Chad to host them in camps. This policy, met by sharp criticism from humanitarian groups, fails to address the key issue of migrant deaths caused by crossing the “Mediterranean graveyard” as it has been dubbed by The EU Observer. To date, the sea has taken more than 2,550 refugees’ lives. What’s more, the rate of fatalities has increased: the International Organization for Migration reports that one out of 50 migrants dies during the journey, an increase from one out of 90 migrants last year.

Drawing attention to the issue, the Public Art Fund’s largest organized initiative to date features over 300 pieces blended into New York’s unique geography. The exhibit’s title comes from Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, which draws an uncanny parallel to today’s world. As the narrator of the poem and his neighbor repair a stone wall separating their properties, the former contemplates: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.” Without much thought, the neighbor finds no fault in repeating a routine, and rather, echoes a meaningless old adage, “Good fences make good neighbors.” With its borrowed name, Ai’s installation
forces the viewer to question an old maxim in the face of a global catastrophe.

No one seems better equipped to speak out about the migrant crisis than Ai, who, himself, is a political refugee. Ai grew up in a labor camp (the Chinese “re-education through labor” system, active from 1957 to 2013) after his father, a poet, fell out of favor with the government during the Anti-Rightist Movement, which was known for purging political critics and intellectuals. A series of campaigns in the late ’50s led to the persecution of approximately 550,000 people. When the political climate cooled, Ai moved to Beijing in his twenties and subsequently moved to the United States, where he lived in New York City for over a decade. In the city, he continued to wander, ultimately dropping out of Parsons School of Design and living without a valid visa until he returned to China when his father fell ill in 1993. Back in China, Ai’s controversial style and statements made him an international star but also a danger to the Communist government. In one such project, Ai photographed himself dropping a Han Dynasty urn, an act that became one of his most recognizable works. “General Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one,” Ai noted in response to formal criticism, adding to the government’s unease.

Ai’s sharp critique of the Chinese government heightened after an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 hit the Sichuan province in May 2008, killing 69,000 and injuring 374,000 people, according to the Telegraph. The following year, while trying to testify for a fellow activist covering the earthquake, Ai was attacked by police at his hotel. As a result, Ai suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage and flew to Munich for emergency brain surgery. In 2011, when ArtReview named Ai the most powerful artist in the world, Ai was jailed without charge by the Chinese police and began his infamous confinement and house arrest. It was only four years after his release that the government returned his passport.

Now based in Berlin, Ai has been focused on the plight of refugees more than ever before. Recently, he unveiled Human Flow, a documentary charting the tracks of refugees in 23 countries over the course of a year. Now, his “Good Fences” installation has brought Ai’s works full circle, stressing the immediacy and proximity of the crisis.

At the heart of campus is one of the exhibit’s key sculptures, which lies under the Washington Square Park Arch. A silhouette of two united figures opens into a passageway, allowing visitors to admire the reflections bouncing off the stainless steel as they walk through. On the surface, the sculpture, titled “Arch,” is a public symbol of the freedom of movement. However, it is also an homage to two influential figures key to Ai’s message. First, the park’s marbled arch is dedicated to President George Washington, who was as much of a dissident as he was a revolutionary. Second, the sculpture is reminiscent of work by Marcel Duchamp, the influential art leader of the Dada movement, who was also an immigrant and a great source of inspiration for Ai.

Ai’s statement has resonated with our city of immigrants—for the most part. The Washington Square Association, the self-proclaimed first neighborhood association in the city, protested the “Arch,” principally because it interfered with the 94-year old tradition of the park’s Christmas tree, which sits under the marbled arch every winter. According to the Association, the Public Art Fund’s installation date was nonnegotiable and its low-budget solution to move the tree elsewhere in the park may have been dangerous. “It’s hard to say that they know what it means to be good neighbors,” the president of the Association Trevor Sumner told The Guardian.

In addition to the “Gilded Cage” and the “Arch,” hundreds of artworks in the “Good Fences” installation remain on public display throughout the five boroughs. The majority consist of fence-like structures at bus stops, and of lamppost banners displaying images of refugees. As students walk around the NYU campus, at least 30 refugees look down from lampposts, whether they are faces of 19th century immigrants at Ellis Island or the displaced people featured in “Human Flow.” At sheltered bus stops, a fence covers the rear wall and slopes into a bench, providing a symbolic, yet practical structure for New Yorkers.

“When you see thousands, even millions of refugees, the only conclusion you get is that very few people care,” Ai noted when asked about the anticipated response to the installation. Ai’s quiet but expansive installation mirrors the lack of coverage and urgency surrounding the global migrant crisis. The installation hopes to bring the issue upfront for New Yorkers—and the world—to notice.

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