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National

Artist Ai Weiwei's Latest Show: 'Good Fences Make Good Neighbors'

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The artist Ai Weiwei is well known for his provocative art installations and also for clashing with the authorities in his native China. He spent years under house arrest in Beijing and became a symbol for free expression. Now Ai Weiwei is working on a new project in a place he used to call home. Ilya Marritz from member station WNYC in New York reports that the artist is putting his art in more than 300 public spaces and making people talk.

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: We're watching as workers bolt-in the final pieces of a gigantic metal cage almost 40-feet high which is nestled inside the famous marble arch in Washington Square Park.

FELIZ SHAPIRO: This is the arc of freedom, and they're putting in a cage inside.

MARRITZ: That voice is Feliz Shapiro, who found himself talking with a stranger, named Tziporah Zimmerman.

SHAPIRO: I don't know - that message is clear.

TZIPORAH ZIMMERMAN: That's a very good point, but are you saying that putting the cage in to make the message, it's, like, the opposite?

MARRITZ: This cage is just one element of Ai Weiwei's new public art show, "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors."

AI WEIWEI: This work is really talking about borders, migrants, you know, fence.

MARRITZ: In China, Ai Weiwei courted controversy by talking about civil liberties. In America, where President Trump wants to curb immigration, Ai wants to get people thinking about the worst worldwide refugee crisis in decades.

AI: Sixty-five million people being pushed away from their - from their homes. None of them really want to leave their country, but they have to leave because otherwise because - just cannot be - safely survive.

MARRITZ: Ai says it feels special to bring his work to the streets of New York. In the '80s and early '90s, long before he was famous, he lived here and he made money selling portraits, 15 bucks a pop, $20 with a picture frame.

So there's people all over New York maybe, maybe around the country, who have Ai Weiwei portraits.

AI: Most likely. I did thousands. But I think they may all (unintelligible) somehow. Yeah.

MARRITZ: Ai Weiwei portraits are still in demand today, but a different kind.

NOA SHAVIT: Thank you so much.

ITAY MANOR: Thank you.

MARRITZ: Selfies with the artist. Itay Manor and Noa Shavit got theirs.

MANOR: I suspected that he's a - a private person and maybe a bit shy. He's not, like, a big superstar so I thought maybe he wouldn't feel comfortable doing it.

MARRITZ: Wrong. Ai Weiwei was happy to smile for the camera. His Instagram feed is actually full of selfies with new acquaintances plus images from this exhibit, which includes the giant cage and also banners on lampposts and fences behind bus shelters all around New York's five boroughs. For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.