The metal-wire Ai Weiwei installation that will reside underneath the Washington Square Arch from October 12 to Feb. 11 isn’t completed yet, but it’s already garnering mixed reviews from people in the neighborhood.
The project, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” is part of a larger exhibition by the Public Art Fund in celebration of its 40th anniversary, and the tall fence-like structure is just one of more than 300 installations that will be scattered across the five boroughs. Another Ai Weiwei installation is going up at Cooper Union.
While the shell of the structure was in place, the area around the arch was fenced off so work crews could apply the finishing touches, creating a temporary (albeit necessary) eyesore for those wandering through the park. Inside the prohibited area there was a clutter of white tarps; two gaudy orange scissor lifts; and a worker that was (hopefully) on his lunch break, seated in a fold-out chair.
Brunna Silva, a 25-year-old au pair from Italy, said she was frustrated when she saw the installation. She had seen the famous arch in TV and movies, and the construction was ruining her photo op.
“I didn’t know about the public installation. I just wanted to see the arch and take a beautiful picture before winter comes, so when I saw this I got really upset. With the fences and the orange [lifts]. So my picture wasn’t good.”
Some, like Debora Levi, an art manager living in New York, were able to look past the construction and enjoy an early peek at the artwork. “I love it. I think it’s thoughtful, fits perfectly, blends into the city, and represents daily political expressions,” said Levi.
She added that public art gives regular people an access to new points of view. “Regardless of if you know about art, or you sympathize with the artist, it will make you think about what you’re doing. From that point of view, public art is terrific. It makes normal people think about it.”
Silvia Salvagnin, a 19-year-old au pair from Italy, said she was also happy to see “Good Neighbors” while walking in the area. “I think it’s interesting when an old building is in connection with the modern – when two things completely opposite from each other are in dialogue together.” She was, of course, referring to the juxtaposition of the old arch and the new installation.
“I think it looks like a nest where there are birds inside. A bird cage,” said Salvagnin. She elaborated: “At the same place you can be entrapped, you can still be free.”
Salvagnin wasn’t the only one who interpreted the large metal enclosure as an empty aviary. Lee Finkle, a retired history professor, said he’s seen a lot of Ai Weiwei’s work, but, without having read anything about “Good Neighbors,” he couldn’t “make heads or tails” of it. “I’m trying to see – the opening looks like two people, but I don’t know. And the birdcage, if you didn’t [ask the artist what it meant], would you know what it was?”
The installation, of course, isn’t meant to be a birdcage. The fences are a metaphor for our newfound culture of divisiveness – from Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, to shutting down international migration — and the ability to walk through the human-shaped silhouette in the middle will be symbolic of breaking down those socio-political barriers.
That said, the all-powerful internet was going to have its say.
An Instagram user, @jennifergolby, is still wondering what’s going to happen to the Christmas tree.
While @bikethebigapple had his own less-than-flattering elucidation.
But Emile Anceau, a 23-year-old studying French literature at NYU, might have the most insightful observations.
“We just made the joke about the fences surrounding the fences,” said Anceau.
Meta. Tres meta.