“Fences or territories always relate to our identity, and also our understanding of ourselves and our attitudes towards others,” Ai said, addressing press at Doris C. Freedman Plaza, the site of a towering circular fence resembling a giant golden birdcage.
“We are living at a time where there’s no tolerance, we’re divided,” Ai noted, “and they try to separate us by colors, race, religion, nationality, which I think is completely going backwards—against freedom, humanity, understanding of our time.”
Ai certainly knows of what he speaks. As a child he lived in exile after his family was forced to leave Beijing due to his poet father’s “rightist” politics. After achieving later renown for activist artworks that advocated for human rights and freedom of speech in China, Ai was infamously detained in 2011 and had his passport revoked. In 2015, upon having his travel documents returned to him, he moved to Berlin and set up a studio there, and began to focus his practice on the plight of refugees.
In the years since, the artist has mounted several highly publicized, large-scale installations to draw attention to the crisis, like an installation on Berlin’s Konzerthaus made from refugees’ lifejackets, and “Laundromat,” a 2016 exhibition at Deitch Projects in New York that saw clothing left behind at the Idomeni refugee camp in Greece cleaned and displayed on racks, as if in a retail store.