Artist Ai Weiwei Reflects on the Global Refugee Crisis

Vivienne Flesher

The Chinese artist's “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” exhibition, in partnership with the Public Art Fund, will appear across New York City starting in October.

New York is a city of immigrants. Its best quality is its diversity, which gives the city such a vibrant and colorful culture. I lived in New York for ten years beginning in 1983. Back then, my situation was one of struggle, akin to other migrant experiences—it is always difficult to be integrated into a new society. But New York taught me many things: individualism, personal freedom, contemporary thinking, and the struggle of capitalism. Now, as I put together my citywide exhibition in partnership with Public Art Fund, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” (which runs from October 12 to February 11), I have a chance to reflect on that time, and I feel quite emotionally involved.

The work is informed by the current global refugee crisis, as well as the history of the migration and dislocation of peoples. The title serves as a parable, reflecting on borders and neighbors. It may seem like New York is not directly impacted by the refugee situation. However, this is not a refugee crisis but a human crisis, which implicates all of us and challenges our moral standards. We have to establish the understanding that humanity is one and bear that responsibility. Otherwise, the consequences will be unbearable for everyone, everywhere.

Art can confront and raise the consciousness of others in the most plain and gentle way. Art is about our emotions and can help extend those feelings to others. New Yorkers have different levels of education and cultural consciousness, different political, ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds. That diversity challenges the work. It makes this the most relevant work I have ever done. I think that any work requires this challenge, and New York provides the best stage. —As told to Julian Sancton