My survey says: People don’t want Ai’s ‘Fence’

Workers were busy setting up the Ai Weiwei “Fences” art installation under the Washington Square Arch on Monday. Photos by Sharon Woolums

BY SHARON WOOLUMS | In my 16 years serving on the Community Board 2 Parks Committee, presenting a major project as a done deal is something brand new to me.

I was one of two public members of the committee who opposed “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” Ai Weiwei’s large-scale sculpture for Washington Square Park. The artwork’s name comes from Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” which includes the lines: “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.”

In this case, though, no one was asked and many took offense that this was presented as a fait accompli. Given the disruption of annual public programs that would occur, that the Parks Committee received 50 form letters and e-mails in support of this project for its meeting on this subject last month, merely demonstrated the extent to which objections were anticipated — and perhaps why this project was shrouded in secrecy until the very end.

Ai Weiwei’s fences sculpture on a big-rig truck outside of Washington Square Park.

The Public Art Fund touts New York City as “a beacon for free expression and democratic ideals” in explaining why it is funding and promoting this project. Yet, for a park such as ours that embodies democracy, this process was demonstrably undemocratic.

I surveyed actual park users who felt left out of the discussion (or lack thereof) and felt their opinions were dissed. Art is subjective but parks are for everybody. For those going to parks to escape and experience nature amid so much visual noise in Manhattan, gigantic themed art installations in their small park are a distraction.

Survey participants felt the assumption that their objections stemmed from a lack of art appreciation — and that this great artist’s talent should automatically warrant acceptance — was condescending.

This is a gift! Except that nobody asked for it! Parkgoers acknowledge, however, this a great opportunity, at great expense, for Ai’s use of our park to promote his art and laudable “themes of division and separation.” Unafraid to appear politically incorrect here, most of those I surveyed resent decisions from perceived top-down art establishments.

Tourists save up and come here to get that coveted selfie of the World Trade Center or the Empire State Building framed by the park arch. During almost half a year (four months while the installation is up and one month of noise and disruption installing and dismantling it), tourists will not experience the arch as we do, but as a wall protesting walls, blocking the view and wide entrance and egress of our iconic gateway to the Village.

The sculpture — already mostly completed by Tuesday afternoon Oct. 3 — was completed by the morning of Wed., Oct. 4.

Washington Square Park itself is a living, breathing work of art. Through the vista of the arch (referred to as “the void” by Mr. Ai), spontaneous creativity happens naturally — acrobats, sand painting, human sculptures, would-be Bob Dylans and children dancing to music of every sort.

There’s nothing static about our park and nothing big, bulky and static need be imposed upon on our already-busy 10 acres, no matter how fabulous or correct the sentiment. Many survey respondents vehemently disdained the idea of the arch being politicized for any reason.

Neighbors worry “Fences” gawkers will create a Times Square-on-steroids atmosphere. There are thousands of art galleries and museums in the city to challenge and expand our minds and vision. But, for many, the need to escape the city’s visual clutter and just be with trees and plants is vital. They love their gateway to creative freedom as is, and find it indefensible that this gigantic sculpture will be superimposed onto the creation of another recognized genius, architect Stanford White, partially obscuring his work.

There is a wonderful sculpture on the triangle plaza at Greenwich Ave. at Eighth St. There are such plazas and empty lots all over the city, perfect for large-scale installations that will not intrude on a park’s mission of passive relaxation, which is so desperately needed at this time. The Statue of Liberty is one.

We respect that the intentions of Mr. Ai are noble, and his work appreciated by many. We might really enjoy his work in all 299 of the planned exhibition sites around New York City.

Some feel, however, that Ai is merely preaching to the choir — since New York City is a sanctuary city — but maybe not the good neighbors’ choir, who have sung traditional carols of peace and love at the holiday tree under the arch since 1909.