Community Opposition to Ai Weiwei’s Planned “Fences” Installation Under Washington Square Arch

Community Opposition to Ai Weiwei’s Planned “Fences” Installation Under Washington Square Arch
ai weiwei good fences washington square park
Proposed Installation Under Arch

Issues Cited: No Community Input on Project; Four Months Blocking off Arch/Public Space; Will Cancel Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony Under Arch

“Chinese contemporary artist and activist” Ai Weiwei announced in March in the New York Times that he would be constructing “one of his most large-scale public art projects to date” called “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” beginning in October with installations throughout New York City. Initially announced as 100 fence installations, the number was recently increased to 300, and now includes… Washington Square Park, with a “large-scale, site-specific, freestanding work(s)” scheduled to be installed directly under the Arch for four months, blocking off all access to the monument.

When the project was first announced, locations announced included a Southeast section outside of Central Park, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and Cooper Union. No mention of Washington Square Park until last week. Nothing of this scope and for this long a period has, to my knowledge, ever occurred at the Arch; the siting will be directly under and within the scope of the 125 year old monument.

Does a change in the composition at the park, a new park administrator, a private conservancy run by four affluent women, who are not running the park (the Parks Department continues to) but who are given easy access to the behind-the-scenes conversations, have anything to do with the approval of this project?*

The Washington Square Association, a neighborhood organization around since 1906, issued a letter asking the Public Art Fund, the organization sponsoring the project, to “withdraw its plans” and spoke out against the Weiwei installation under the Arch.

For one, they state, it interferes with the annual Christmas tree lighting under the Arch, which their group has presented since 1924, something surely the Parks Department was aware of. They also mention that there was no community involvement in the decision as to whether this project should go forward.

In the letter to the Public Art Fund, they wrote of the Arch:

The monumental Arch is a work of art in itself. It does not need to be politicized with the proposed installation. The shape is grand and sculptural, as are the statues of George Washington. We feel that the integrity of its design would be compromised by Mr. Weiwei’s art work. This installation sets a dangerous precedent that one of New York City’s most recognized monuments and pieces of art can be decorated and co-opted for 4 months at a time.

The Community Board 2 Parks Committee will be addressing this at its next meeting in early September, but, according to the Washington Square Association, that is just days before they “break ground” for the installation.

The letter continues: “The project was not built with the collaboration of the neighborhood. We were presented with final designs without input and the community board meeting is being held just days before you break ground. The feedback of the community in such a long-standing and disruptive project should have been more intrinsic to the process, which an organization such as the Public Arts Fund should know given its history.

More from the Huffington Post, Ai Weiwei Is Building Fences All Over NYC In A Powerful Public Art Project:

“The fence has always been a tool in the vocabulary of political landscaping and evokes associations with words like ‘border,’ ‘security,’ and ‘neighbor,’” Ai said in a statement on Tuesday. “But what’s important to remember is that while barriers have been used to divide us, as humans we are all the same. Some are more privileged than others, but with that privilege comes a responsibility to do more.”

The name “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” comes from a Robert Frost poem called “Mending Wall,” which [director and Chief Curator of Public Art Fund Nicholas] Baume sent to Ai early in the project’s development. The poem includes the ambiguous phrase Ai used as his title, as well as the line, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out / And to whom I was like to give offence.”

“He loved the clarity and directness of Frost’s writing, and the subtle irony of this famous refrain,” Baume added.

“Good Fences” will open citywide on October 12th and is scheduled to run until February 11th.

The Public Art Fund also notably produced the controversial, arborcidal Waterfalls project in 2008.

On top of it, Ai Weiwei is doing a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project; this seems curious to me.

Should they move the installation elsewhere in the park? Or move on altogether? 

* * *

Statement from the Washington Square Association:

To Public Art Fund:

The Board of Directors of the Washington Square Association, Inc, a civic organization since 1906, strongly requests that the Public Art Find withdraw its plans to erect the Weiwei installation, part of “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” under the Washington Square Arch in the park. Our reasons are:

1) The installation will make impossible the erection, under the arch, of our holiday tree that traditionally goes up the weekend after Thanksgiving, and stays until mid-January. It illuminates the darkness with sparkling white lights, and serves as a welcome to people walking or bussing down Fifth Avenue. Over a thousand people in our community gather for the tree lighting and singing early in December and for caroling on Christmas Eve. It is festive and beloved by our neighbors and a shining symbol for all who live or walk along Fifth avenue since 1924.

2) The monumental Arch is a work of art in itself. It does not need to be politicized with the proposed installation. The shape is grand and sculptural, as are the statues of George Washington. We feel that the integrity of its design would be compromised by Mr. Weiwei’s art work. This installation sets a dangerous precedent that one of New York City’s most recognized monuments and pieces of art can be decorated and co-opted for 4 months at a time.

3) The project was not built with the collaboration of the neighborhood.  We were presented with final designs without input and the community board meeting is being held just days before you break ground. The feedback of the community in such a long-standing and disruptive project should have been more intrinsic to the process, which an organization such as the Public Arts Fund should know given its history.

We would like to also state that we have no objection to Mr. Weiwei’s piece in itself, but only to its placement on the arch that will also block and diminish the annual seasonal celebrations, including the Children’s Halloween Parade and the Sukkot house that take place in that vicinity.

Respectfully yours,

Trevor Sumner, President

The Washington Square Association

(*And, if this is the case, I predicted it. See “hot dog vendors.”)

Image:
Public Art Fund