Arch, from the series 'Good Fences Make Good Neighbors', by Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei

Arch, from the series 'Good Fences Make Good Neighbors', 2017, Galvanized mild steel and mirror polished stainless steel, Washington Square Arch, Washington Square Park, Manhattan, © Ai Weiwei. Photo: Ed Rooney / Alamy Stock Photo

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Complex Hospitality

Commentary by

Arch was the signature work of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Good Fences Make Good Neighbors’ (on view 2017–18), a multisite exhibition concerned with the global refugee crisis, consisting of over 300 installations throughout New York City. Occupying the centre of the Washington Square Arch in Manhattan, this thirty-seven-foot-tall steel cage contained a reflective passageway in the form of two silhouetted human figures united in an embrace (Baume 2019: 19, 27, 32–33). In combining the form of embracing figures (suggesting openness and welcome) with that of a fence or cage (suggesting prohibition and exclusion), Ai powerfully conveyed the paradox of national borders.

This paradox is further expressed by the relationship between Arch and the monument it ‘occupies’. Drawing upon the long history of the Triumphal Roman arch, the Washington Square Arch is intended to celebrate the military might and victories of the United States Empire and its military hero/‘Emperor’ George Washington. The placement of Ai’s sculpture within this triumphant symbol of national territories and strength raises the question of how strong borders may or may not be compatible with welcoming borders, mirroring the tensions played out at the gates of the cities of refuge.

According to Numbers 35, Joshua 20, and Deuteronomy 4:41–43, when the accused killer arrived at the city gate, he was to present himself before the elders of the city who would conduct a trial to determine the context of the killing. If the court found that he had killed his victim intentionally, he would be handed over to ‘the avenger of blood’ who had the right to execute him; if the court found that he had killed his victim unintentionally, he would be admitted into the city of refuge and live there until the death of the then officiating high priest.

The immersive symbolism of Arch embodies the complexity of the hospitality inherent within the sanctuary practices of the cities of refuge. Although these cities offered welcome and protection to anyone who had killed someone, including the ‘stranger’ and the ‘sojourner’ (Numbers 35:15), such welcome and protection was highly dependent upon a requisite process intended or designed to ascertain the killer’s motive (Bagelman 2016: 78–79). Arch, of course, does not cross-examine its visitors in this manner, but its imagery draws out the inherent tensions of the gateway, evoking the same contradictions which characterize the sanctuary practices detailed in these biblical passages.

 

References

Bagelman, Jennifer J. 2016. Sanctuary City: A Suspended State (New York: Palgrave Macmillan)

Baume, Nicholas. 2019. Ai Weiwei: Good Fences Make Good Neighbours (New Haven: Yale University Press)