The amplitude and potency of art are in its power to inspire and—as the Public Art Fund in NYC does each season staging ambitious, free art exhibitions throughout the city’s urban sprawl—to surprise and delight, as well. Good Fences Make Good Neighbors was the latest PAF project that did just that. Featuring world-renowned Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, with curation by PAF Director & Chief Curator, Nicholas Baume, along with Associate Curator, Daniel S. Palmer, the title of this five-borough-wide exhibition is a line taken from Robert Frost's early and very iconic 20th-century poem, Mending Wall, that tells the story of a New England farmer (the narrator) who, with Spring's arrival, asks his neighbor to help in fixing their shared divide, a wall —the sort made of fieldstones placed one atop the other without any use of mortar—separating their properties and which, we learn, had fallen into disrepair from Winter's wrath and or a hunter's trespass. As the two neighbors begin the mending process, each heaving and emplacing the displaced stones from both sides of their properties, the farmer-narrator sets forth to question the very purpose of the actual wall standing between them. Sound familiar? The neighbor's only reply: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
In this American classic, Frost explores not only the boundaries, demarcations, and offenses walls create but also the beautiful fellowship found in man when working together on a common interest or goal. The poem is an astute study in dealing with life's contradictions, tensions, and prejudices found in society —in one another. As one all too familiar with such themes —and of walls particularly, especially after getting sent behind four of them in China for political offenses—Ai Weiwei brings an added bonus of authenticity, legitimacy, and profundity to this Public Art Fund project. Inspired by the “international migration crisis and current global geopolitical landscape”, Good Fences is Ai's reaction to "a retreat from the essential attitude of openness" in American politics and a passionate plea "to do more" with concern human suffering, displacement, and divisiveness. Ai Weiwei is, according to this writer, possessed with an art-spirit-magic akin to Gabriel García Márquez and is not simply hacking a line from Robert Frost for mere creative effect but, in fact, becomes Frost's protagonist by questioning issues pertinent to a civil society confronted with, says Ai, a “rise in nationalism, an increase in the closure of borders, and an exclusionary attitude towards migrants and refugees, the victims of war and the casualties of globalization.” Wei Wei is now the farmer-narrator or, we might say for 2018 context, the migrant-narrator seeking good neighbors to help mend societal ails, collaborative ways to help restore civic virtue and civil discourse, and to eradicate divisive boundaries existing between peoples and countries.
Billy The Artist has resided in the East Village for over 30 years, is a master of line, internationally recognized, and counts himself a big fan of Ai Weiwei. He and his BTA Studio photographer, Bryan Thatcher, began discussing Good Fences the moment installations began popping up all over their neighborhood. After documenting the work in black and white photos and investigating Frost's poem, it dawned on Billy he could play the role of the farmer-narrator’s neighbor and answer affirmatively Wei Wei's call “to do more”, to help in the mending process thusly: “After 9-11, there was a tremendous outpouring of love and togetherness, of unity, and Ai Weiwei’s project reminded me immediately of the Tiles For America fence at Mulry Square, in the West Village. Thousands of people around the world contributed by adding their personal touch, a tile to the chain-link fence showing support and solidarity. The 7th Avenue fence was very much like the stone wall in Frost's poem: both, through unity, helped in fixing something broken.” Billy continued: “I somehow wanted to bring my own art to Weiwei’s fence. A creative layering or piling not of stone but of light atop the dark underbelly behind Weiwei's political commentary. One more voice to further propel Weiwei’s cause."
Asked his favorite line in Frost’s poem, BTA, as those in the art world call him, replied:
“He moves in darkness as it seems to me”
“We must always seek the light and find the truth no matter the cost. We need thought-provoking dialogue and challenging art that takes us out of our comfort zones and into the realm of others’ thinking and feeling. Not because our way is wrong, insensitive, or lacking empathy, but because we're all humans trying to find our way in this world. And as Americans, we have such an unbelievable amount of freedom and protection to do and say pretty much anything we can dream of. We weren’t raised and given this freedom to take lightly or to get offended so easily. We can handle another mouth to feed just as we can dress half a million refugees if we had to from all the extra clothing most of us have stored away in our closets. Great art takes us out of the darkness and Good Fences Makes Good Neighbors shined a brilliant light on what humanity needs to do to remain human. And that, my friend, is worth talking about.”
We at Fjord’s Review feel these new works by Billy The Artist, inspired entirely from Ai Weiwei’s Good Fences, are some of his best work to date. We’re certain you'll agree.
Billy collaborated with the photography of Ai Weiwei’s fences with Bryan Thatcher.
–Gregory de la Haba