Hunting a City-wide Art Installation: Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Imagine an art installation with more than 300 separate pieces, scattered throughout all five boroughs of New York City. The scale seems almost impossible, but that is exactly what Chinese-born artist Ai Weiwei has accomplished with his new exhibition, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. The exhibition, which is sponsored by Public Art Fund, draws its title from the line of the Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall.” Ai Weiwei uses his art to draw attention to the plight of the millions of refugees around the world seeking shelter from violence in refugee camps and through immigration. Some of the sites symbolize the types of barriers that exist for refugees, while others personalize refugees’ experiences. Some are constructed of heavy, cold metals; others of flimsy panels that are moved by the breeze. It’s a rich treasure trove to discover, if one is persistent and has some endurance.

Because of the scope of the exhibition, I’ve focused my attentions so far on Manhattan, where the largest number of sites are located. Over the course of two days I walked more than 15 miles, scouring neighborhood after neighborhood: the Lower East Side; the Financial District near the World Trade Center site; Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park; the Flatiron District; Midtown and the southeast corner of Central Park; the Upper East Side; and East Harlem. During my walks, I found numerous parts of the exhibition, usually with the help of this online map, but I have so many more that I want to discover. I guess it’s a good thing that the exhibition continues through February 11, 2018. Each piece I found added another nuance to my understanding of the whole, and it was just as delightful to find a small banner as it was to see a large installation.

So let me give you a visual sense of the exhibition, starting with the larger, metal structures. My favorite of these is Gilded Cage, located on the southeast corner of Central Park. When I clicked on this site on the map, I found this explanation of Gilded Cage:

For the entrance to Central Park, Ai has created a giant gilded cage that simultaneously evokes the luxury of Fifth Avenue and the privations of confinement. Visitors are able to enter its central space, which is surrounded by bars and turnstiles. Functioning as a structure of both control and display, the work reveals the complex power dynamics of repressive architecture.

From the outside, Gilded Cage looks like this:

From the inside, the view depends on where you look. The installation very much feels like a cage, as you can tell from this photo (and makes a good backdrop for personal photos as well).

But when you look up, the view is different, with the open design at the top somehow giving me a sense of hope, an alternative perspective of the problem.

Then there is this 37-foot tall structure, titled Arch, placed in the center of the Washington Square arch.

Or how about Five Fences, with each “fence” covering a window of the Cooper Union building near Astor Place.

There are smaller structures built around certain bus shelters, less imposing, like the one visible here.

There are also Greek-style friezes and photos on advertising platforms around the city, but my favorite parts of the exhibition are among the more than 200 banners attached to lampposts around the city. Each one has an image from a different photograph, historical and modern, of immigrant and refugees. The online map provides more information about when and where each banner photo was taken, but I’m going to focus on the images on the banners in my photos below. These photos also show the interesting contrasts you’ll sometimes see between banners and nearby buildings, as well as the challenges associated with finding and photographing banners among the trees. The images are reach, showing the full range of human emotions.

For my last photos, I’ll show you the banners at the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side. These banners are attached to the side of the building and are in stark contrast to the vibrant mural painted below. If you look closely at the banners, you can see a scene of refugees attempting to make their way to safety.

A final note: One of the benefits of writing this blog over the past couple of years is that I’ve had the opportunity to read many other blogs as well, and in the process of made some blogging friends around the world. Today’s post is dedicated to two of those blogging friends. First, to Meg, an Australian who writes the blog snippetsandsnaps ~ Potato Point and Beyond. Meg celebrated a birthday last week, and I want to wish her a happy birthday! She recently read a NY Times article about the subject of this post and has been patiently waiting for me to get my post up. Second, to Jo, an Englishwoman with Polish roots who craves the sun of the Portuguese Algarve region. Jo writes a wonderful blog called Restless Jo and hosts the weekly Jo’s Monday Walks. Since I walked so many miles on my hunt for Ai Weiwei’s installations, I will offer this post for next week’s Monday Walk as well. So here’s a blog toast to two blogging friends, Meg and Jo!

Battery Park: More Than Just the Portal for the Statue of Liberty

When most people head to Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, they are looking for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. But Battery Park is also a destination in its own right. If you take the time to explore it, you will find numerous treasures to reward your efforts.

As you wander around the paths at the south end of Battery Park, not far from the Staten Island Ferry’s Whitehall Terminal, you will find the Seaglass Carousel. Personally, I think there is something magical about any carousel – they bring us back to those innocent childhood years. But I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the Seaglass Carousel is in a class by itself. First, the building is reminiscent of the spiral of those extra-special shells you might find on an exotic beach, with the shape of a nautilus.

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Then, once you peer into the glass windows, the form of the carousel is even more captivating. Imagine riding along on softly colored, sea glass-inspired fish and other sea creatures – in fact, you are almost cacooned within the the ride. I could watch the carousel figures go around for hours, but it is even more special to ride it and be in the midst of it. The tickets are $5 each, but for a return to childhood they are entirely worth the price. (Or, if you are still a child, it’s also worth it!) I have to say, there were more adults than children riding it on the day that I visited, and I was one of those riders.

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After riding the carousel, you should explore the rest of the park as well. There’s a nice walk along the Hudson River, where you will likely see a seagull (or two, or three, or more …), as well as the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in the distance.

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Near this part of the park is the East Coast Memorial. The Memorial consists of 8 towering granite walls, inscribed with the names of the American servicemen who lost their lives in battle in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II.

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At the far end of the East Coast Memorial is this powerful bronze statue of an eagle, created by sculptor Albino Manca.

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Between the East Coast Memorial and Castle Clinton is my favorite of all the monuments in Battery Park, titled “The Immigrants,” by sculptor Luis Sanguino. This monument includes portrayals of several representative immigrants to the United States. Every time I see this monument, I am struck by its power. If you visit the park, make sure that you explore the monument from all angles, as it is truly an amazing work of art. The monument was donated by Samuel Rudin, in honor of his parents who came to the United States in the late 19th century.

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The heart of the park is Castle Clinton. Castle Clinton has served many roles since its construction in the early 1800s, ranging from military fort to entertainment center, immigration station (prior to the opening of Ellis Island) to an early home to the New York City Aquarium. Today, Castle Clinton is a National Monument and the place from which ferries travel to the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island.

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There are many other memorials located throughout Battery Park, and I won’t discuss all because I don’t want to spoil all surprises. But here are a few more of my favorites, just to give you a sense of the variety of themes and styles. I really like the uniqueness of the New York Korean War Memorial. The concrete surrounding the memorial is stamped with the names of the countries that fought together during the Korean War, along with each nation’s casualty numbers.

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There is also Fritz Koenig’s sculpture, titled “The Sphere,” which spent more than 30 years in the plaza outside of the World Trade Center until being moved to its current site as a temporary memorial to the 9/11 victims in 2002. Nearby, an eternal flame burns in memorial to those whose lives were lost on 9/11.

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There is something very compelling about the American Merchant Mariners Memorial, designed by Marisol Escobar. If you look closely, you will see that the one man is rescuing another from the water.

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Nearby is Pier A, originally built in the 1880s, but now hosting a restaurant and visitor’s center.

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Outside of Pier A is an interesting collection of globes with an environmental message.

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Don’t forget to look down in this part of the park. One of the interesting aspects is that you can see previous locations of the shoreline and piers in the 19th century, before landfill extended the parameters of Manhattan.

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Finally, if you look north from Battery Park at this point, you will see One World Trade Center, also known as the Freedom Tower. It’s a beautiful view, but also a poignant one after viewing the 9/11 Memorial, “The Sphere,” only a short time before.

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How do you get to Battery Park? You can take the 4 or 5 train to the Bowling Green station, the J or Z trains to the Broad Street station, the R train to Whitehall Street station, or the 1 train to South Ferry (make sure you are on one of the first five cars for the 1 train). (Here’s the entrance to the Bowling Green station, on the edge of Battery Park, below – isn’t it cute?)

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