Some rage against Weiwei arch ‘cage’

A design rendering of a cage-like fence that would be installed under the Washington Square Arch this fall as part of Ai Weiwei’s public-art project about immigration and cultural exchange. The fence would have a cutout allowing people to pass through it. The Washington Square installation is planned as one element of a multipart project by Weiwei called “Good Fences Make Good
Neighbors.” Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio/ Frahm & Frahm

BY LIZZY ROSENBERG | In June, the Public Art Fund organized a confidential meeting with three Community Board 2 representatives to discuss Chinese political artist Ai Weiwei’s upcoming project on immigration, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.”

Though there are 300 sites citywide for the project, a key part of the installation is planned in the heart of the Village, right underneath Washington Square Park’s iconic arch.

The installation would last four months, from October to February, which would displace the annual Christmas tree, which would have to be shifted to another spot in the park.

A public meeting to discuss the matter was held Wed., Sept. 6, at Judson Church.

At the meeting, Nicholas Baume, the Public Art Fund’s director and chief curator, gave an in-depth presentation on Weiwei’s history and art experience, going into detail on “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.”

As an immigrant himself, Baume explained, Weiwei feels a strong connection to the project, which reflects on issues surrounding immigration and nationalism worldwide. The title is derived from Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall.”

Ai Weiwei back in his New York City days in the 1980s when he lived in the East Village. Photo by Clayton Patterson

The 300 sites citywide would weave through bus shelters, kiosks and rooftops. The artwork planned for the Washington Square Arch would a birdcage-like fence — 37 feet tall, 21 feet wide, with a 16-foot-tall, 6-foot-5-inch-wide human-shaped walkway cut out in the middle.

“The work itself fills the void of the archway, not touching the arch in any way,” Baume explained. “It’s a three-dimensional, experiential and immersive sculpture, which manages to take on this issue of fences and borders, generously inviting the public to have an engaging and thought-provoking experience.

“We know people will always create walls,” he said. “But people together with an expression in the indomitable human spirit can break through these barriers.

“The structure will be mounted on a strong steel base to distribute its weight and will be ADA accessible, he said. Setup time will take about 48 hours, and will be overseen by security, Baume added. A “Geo-Fencing Web site” will go up when the first fences are installed, allowing tourists to seek out nearby installations and read additional information on them.

Though the arch’s installation won’t physically touch the arch, several neighbors said they are worried about the project’s safety.

“As someone who happens to be liberal, I understand the exuberance of de Blasio’s effort to make this so prominent in the park. However, this is a highly dangerous installation,” said Trevor Sumner, president of the Washington Square Park Association.

“Erecting a very large jungle gym in a park full of kids and college students screams ‘five million dollar lawsuit,’” he further explained.

The installation’s timing is also upsetting to Washington Square-area locals. Since the installation is set to run from October to February, the arch’s annual Christmas tree would have to be relocated somewhere else, perhaps 120 feet south its traditional spot, in between the fountain and the arch. The Public Art Fund, however, is open to other suggestions for tree locations. Some of those in support of relocating the tree for the art installation suggested going Uptown to visit Rockefeller Center’s tree instead, an idea that horrified Greenwich Village locals.

“Parkgoers do not want this piece constantly in their faces,” Sumner protested. “It undermines the history and integrity of this recognizable monument, as well as the Christmas tradition of the Washington Square Park tree. It could easily be fixed by moving the dates of the installation.”

Many Downtown neighbors, however, aren’t concerned by the installation’s prominence in the park.

One woman said, “In the Village, we’re not about beautiful pieces — we’re about challenging pieces — as we’re constantly surrounded by different kinds of people in this city, with beautiful languages left and right.”

The two Community Board 2 committees that jointly held last Wednesday’s hearing — the Art and Institutions Committee and the Parks and Waterfront Committee — voted to recommend approval of the Public Art Fund’s installation in the park. They requested that the Public Art Fund collaborate with the Washington Square Association and the Washington Square Conservancy to relocate the holiday tree — which the Public Art Fund has agreed to pay for. Community members also noted that, in general, they would prefer to consulted earlier about such matters.