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Ai Weiwei in New York

I remember seeing my first Ai Weiwei installation in person. It was his collection of porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern and it was a sight to behold. It gave me my first sense of the scope and scale in which the Chinese artist works. His latest exhibition, in New York, is no less as ambitious.
It’s called Good Fences Make Good Neighbours, and features site-specific works dealing with the theme of migration and people moving across borders and space. The two largest pieces of the public art showing (which also celebrates the 40th anniversary of New York’s Public Art Fund) are located in Central Park and in Washington Square Park. They encourage you to walk through them, to look up and around, and consider the implications of your own movement being limited or restricted.
This theme is timely, even if it the refugee crisis may not necessarily still be headline news. Displacement of people, how they are or are not welcomed in other countries and what it means to be citizens, of one country or many, are issues worth talking about. For this reason, I’ve liked seeing these pieces across the city – whether it’s the giant pieces or the smaller portraits hanging from lamp-posts of well-known immigrants, like Marlene Dietrich or Alfred Einstein.
As K’naan raps in The Hamilton Mixtape version of Immigrants (We Get the Job Done):
“You can be an immigrant without risking your lives /
Or crossing these borders with thrifty supplies /
All you got to do
Is see the world through new eyes.”
Seeking to see the world through new eyes is a laudable aim, but when it doesn’t happen on an every-day basis, art is so important for this. It’s one of the reasons I was so moved by the virtual reality piece Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki made that debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and for which the filmmaking duo will receive an honorary Oscar. Their short film Carne y Arena took me deep into my own prejudice, to the point where when I, placed in the scenario of crossing the Mexican border, was asked to get down by a policeman, I shook my head no. I was in a made-up world, based on fact, yes, but my mind told me there was no way he was talking to me; that I would never be in that situation. When his gun was directed straight on in my face, I found myself scrambling to the floor. I hope to never be in that kind of situation, but it showed me that I still hold some perhaps discriminatory ideas about what being a refugee really means. It’s powerful to feel with new eyes too.
The exhibition will run until February next year. In the meantime, here’s my episode of The Rundown dedicated to Good Fences Make Good Neighbours.