CRITIQUE – Ai WeiWei’s “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”

I decided to do my critique on the contemporary artist and activist from Beijing, China, Ai WeiWei. He actually began his work in China, and created such controversial pieces that the Chinese government threw him in solitary confinement for eighty-one days. This is what eventually led him to move to Berlin and consequentially shift his attention to the plight of refugees struggling to reach Europe.

His activism was highlighted through a number of different pieces but his controversy in Europe began when he posed as Alan Kurdi. In January of 2016, Rohit Chawla, a photographer from India Today, asked WeiWei to pose for a photo and WeiWei says that the image of Alan came to mind in the context of this photo-shoot and so he ran with it. Then in February of 2016, he created an art installation where he took nearly 14,000 discarded life vests, given to him by authorities in Lesbos, Greece, and wrapped them around the pillars of Berlin’s concert hall. A few months later in July, he presented a similar exhibit where he arranged 1,000 life jackets to form rings resembling the letter “F” that floated in the pond of Vienna’s Belvedere Palace like lotus flowers.

But I want to focus on his latest work, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” which is a “multi-site, multi-borough installation that explores the inclination towards, and effects of, erecting boundaries in society” (Kinsella 2017). This exhibition is located in Manhattan and is WeiWei’s most ambitious piece to date as it encompasses 300 pieces of art throughout five boroughs. It’s the latest initiative announced by the Public Art Fund, which organizes dynamic contemporary art installations in New York City. This installation is extremely powerful and conveys a slew of different messages about the migrant crisis. WeiWei wants to address this feeling of security – so many of us who are born in the United States take our safety and security for granted. We don’t question it, think about it, or even worry that it could be taken away from us. WeiWei wants this piece to be a reminder of our own security and how most of the world does not enjoy the same liberty that is an inevitable byproduct of being born in “the land of the free.” The purpose of his “fences” aren’t to keep people out or hold anybody in, they are simply to make the streets of Manhattan a little less accessible to the general public. He targets three of New York’s most popular landmarks – Central Park, the Washington Square arch, and the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. He believes that as an artist, you must be an activist.

For all of his pieces, in Europe and in the U.S., his intended audience was the general public; he wants his work to reach as many individuals as possible. His objective is mainly to spread ideas and raise awareness. He says, “It’s always been about communication, aesthetics play a secondary role in my work” (Neuendorf 2016). He wants to communicate a very specific message about the plight of refugees and migrants. However, the popular response to his work has consistently been mixed. In regards to his “Good Fences” installation, one particular piece of art under the Washington Square Arch came under fire for being too invasive and ruining the tradition of a holiday tree under the arch. Overall, critics of WeiWei find him too overbearing and invasive. I also came across some critiques regarding his lack of concrete action. For example, in response to his life vest installation in Berlin, one critic said, “It would have been more useful to send and distribute the life jackets in North Africa” (Muñoz-Alonso 2016). But ultimately, his two main goals are raising awareness and protesting against the refugee crisis, and with that in mind, WeiWei undoubtedly meets those objectives.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Ai WeiWei’s work, but even so, I definitely have one particular critique. I look at what WeiWei is doing and think – you have so many artists putting up installations and creating artwork in the name of activism, but what are they actually accomplishing besides raising awareness – and is that enough? I admire the risk-taking, I admire the conceptualization and creation of physically massive pieces of art that demand the public’s attention. I believe that artists like WeiWei are able to speak to such a large audience simply by catching a lot of peoples’ eyes – and spreading the message is of indisputable importance. But it’s almost as though this idea of activism is becoming so popularized and almost glamourized, especially within the art community, that it seems like everyone’s participating just to say they participated. Communication of the issue is crucial, but at what point do we stop talking about the problem and start trying to fix it? At the end of the day, while Ai WeiWei’s art installations may reach a wide array of people, and spread awareness of these issues, they didn’t do anything concrete to solve them.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I know the solution to one of the most ubiquitous issues this world has ever faced. But I do know that we need to start turning communication and awareness into action and progress. Maybe this takes the form of fundraising, maybe WeiWei takes all the money he makes from his installations, documentaries, etc. and funnels it into organizations that take physical action to combat the migrant and refugee crisis. I know this is a very basic solution, but at least it’s a start.

Works Cited

Kinsella, Eileen. “Ai Wewei Mounts Most Ambitious Public Art to Date in NYC.” Artnet News, Artnet News, 27 Mar. 2017,

Neuendorf, Henri. “Ai Weiwei Says Chinese Authorities Made Him Famous.” Artnet News, Artnet News, 18 July 2016,

Muñoz-Alonso, Lorena. “Ai Weiwei Creates Refugee Life Jacket Art in Vienna.” Artnet News, Artnet News, 14 July 2016,