The installations are part of Mr. Ai’s effort to draw attention to the international refugee crisis, the subject of his new documentary, “Human Flow,” which opens in New York and Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13, and represents a year and a half of work, during which he traveled to a dozen countries.
“It’s really one project,” he said over a hamburger dinner on Houston Street. He is something of a refugee himself: He was stripped of his passport and detained in China by the Chinese government for more than four years, from 2011 to 2015.
Some 65 million people around the world, he says, have been forced from their homes by conflict and persecution — the greatest displacement since World War II. “This is not just a regional crisis,” he added. “It’s global, it’s historical. The numbers will get bigger.”
Mr. Ai is also giving public talks across the city on the topic. “I don’t know who would do this, five talks in 10 days,” Mr. Ai said of his commitment to the cause. Only him, was the implied answer.
“This is an unusual confluence of Weiwei in one city,” said Alexandra Munroe, the curator who organized the Guggenheim Museum’s show “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” which opens Oct 6. Mr. Ai initiated and curated a film series with his Berlin-based partner, Wang Fen, “Turn It On: China on Film, 2000–2017,” to accompany the museum exhibition.
Back in the ’80s, as a struggling artist, he said, having “even one piece” on view in New York would have been hard for him to fathom.
“Good Fences” spreads across the city with several smaller elements, including fencelike sculptures that also serve as seating at bus stops. Lamppost banners will display images of refugees from “Human Flow” as well as famous people who were displaced, like Sigmund Freud. Five medium-size installations in the East Village and Lower East Side refer to the neighborhoods’ immigrant history.
Underneath the marble Washington Square Arch and at the Doris C. Freedman Plaza at Central Park’s southeast corner, he is erecting two large, cagelike structures. One of them, “Arch” is silver in color and shaped like a birdcage, and the other, “Gilded Cage,” has a series of turnstiles — a nod to the physical barriers that refugees encounter — within a circular structure. Its gold tone recalls nearby Trump Tower and its presidential namesake, he said.
“Arch,” through which visitors can walk and see themselves reflected in the metal, came under fire in August from a community group, the Washington Square Association, for being too invasive — the traditional holiday tree under the arch will have to be scrapped — and for being planned without enough notice for residents.
But with the approvals of the local community board and city agencies, it went forward. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation stipulated building a free-standing structure that doesn’t touch the Arch, and Mr. Ai complied.
He seemed well aware that as a noted dissident, welcoming dissent about his own project was part of his role. “I think it’s fantastic,” he said of the objections. “The work challenges the issue of tolerance, coexistence.”
But he added, “This is artwork for the whole city, not just the neighborhood, and it has strong support from all kinds of communities and people.”
The third large installation, “Circle Fence,” surrounds the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. It’s made of mesh netting and intended to simulate a border perimeter, but it too can be used as a bench or played on. As it happens, Mr. Ai used to sell T-shirts in the park in the 1980s.
The artist said the overall goal was to make viewers unaware that they are looking at sculpture, using “very plain language, very direct — very almost-art, but maybe, maybe not.”
The central challenge for “Good Fences” was how to express the theme but not create bottlenecks in one of the world’s busiest cities, said Nicholas Baume, the director and chief curator of the Public Art Fund.
“When the subject is dividing and controlling, how to do that without dividing and controlling people?” Mr. Baume said. “This is where he is so brilliant: The barred metal structure implies confinement, but he turns it into a gilded birdcage.”
Mr. Ai has shown a knack for translating his ideas into conceptual projects that fit the prevailing language of international contemporary art — formalized and intellectual.
“Human Flow,” however, shows a more personal side, with Mr. Ai directing the film but also appearing occasionally to empathize with refugees living in horrific camps. He gets his hair cut by one refugee and cuts another’s hair — “a symbolic thing for the Chinese,” representing intimacy and closeness, he said.
Forced displacement resonates, given his family experience. The poetic title “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” takes its title from Robert Frost, but Mr. Ai’s father, Ai Qing, who died in 1996, “was the most well-known poet in China,” he pointed out.
His father was a friend and favorite of Mao Zedong who, in the purge of intellectuals, was sent to a labor camp and then banished to the provinces in 1958.
“I spent 20 years with my father as an exile,” Mr. Ai said, recalling how his own classmates, during the madness of the Cultural Revolution, would beat his father, adding that it shows “how human society can become so unspeakable.”
His own four-year hardship detention involved “conditions much worse than jail,” he recounted, referring to a military police base where he was held for part of that time. He said the most painful aspect was the separation from his now 8-year-old son, Ai Lao, whose mother is Ms. Wang, his Guggenheim film series co-curator. (He is separated from his wife, Lu Qing, who lives in China.)
“They said ‘When you’re released, he will never recognize you,’” Mr. Ai recalled of his captor’s threats of a decade-long imprisonment. “Now I try to spend as much time as possible with him.” That includes, when he is in Berlin, dropping his son off at school and picking him up.
Though he enjoys living in the German capital, Mr. Ai said that he was considering a home and studio “upstate” in the Hudson Valley. Like an echt New Yorker, he had in mind “something an hour and a half or two hours away.”
Until then, he gets a mental break from studio time with a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. “I like to play a few hands,” said Mr. Ai, who does have a puckish side. “Rarely, because it’s wasting time, but, you know, it keeps you occupied somehow.”