On a Bus with Ai Weiwei, Or So I Thought
Bedford + Bowery, October 2017. Find the original article here.
Photo: Courtesy of Mathew Silver
Is there going to be food on this thing? That’s my first thought when I board a tour bus with about 20 other journalists, before heading on a trip to see installations from Ai Weiwei’s new citywide exhibition, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. To my delight/surprise, there’s a black tote bag sitting on every seat with some snacks.
Maybe it’s too close to Halloween and I’m paranoid about hidden needles, but I don’t want to eat some random apple or the cheddar-flavored Skinny Pop. Instead, I’ve brought along a breakfast burrito from a local bodega. I can sense my seatmate, a German named Andreas who works for German Public Radio, is a bit jealous.
If you haven’t gathered it yet, it turns out Ai Weiwei will not be on this bus ride (apparently he’s got an interview with CBS News Sunday Morning), so I’m scrambling for something to write about. I’ll be stuck on this bus for the next three hours, and the only thing to do now is to write and hope that I don’t get nauseous from staring at my computer (which is inevitable).
A representative from the Public Art Fund, who is tasked with babysitting all the journalists on this field trip, gets on the microphone and addresses the entire bus. After she’s done, a suddenly funny reporter pipes up, “Will you be singing any show tunes on the way?” I squirm in my seat.
The operator of this large vehicle is a man named Bill. He told me earlier that he’s also an actor, and if the following photo proliferates further than this article, he’ll need to know.
Photo: Courtesy of Mathew Silver
He wears that Panama hat through the summer, until it gets too cold. All of the pins on his vest are either sports teams that he’s driven in the past, or places that he’s been. I like Bill, but he strikes me as somewhat of a performance artist. At one point, he jumps dramatically off the bus to check how far away he is from a tree. It turns out he isn’t close at all, and there are several maneuvers to come that seem a lot like showing off.
“This might be the last time I get to drive a bus through Central Park,” says Bill. And I’m about to figure out why. The traffic on the streets that run through the park host a weird mix of bikers, runners, and horse-drawn carts, which leaves little room for a gigantic, Greyhound-sized bus to squeeze through. If I don’t die from some combination of claustrophobia and carsickness, it will be a collision with a Clydesdale.
Eventually we arrive at the first structure, attached to a bus stop on the corner of Central Park North and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard.
As you can see at the top of this page, it looks a lot like a minor league baseball backstop. That might sound a bit unfair or reductive, but as the head of the Public Art Fund, Nicholas Baume, tries to explain what it actually represents, most of his speech is drowned out by ambient noise. Ambulance sirens, nosy fellow journalists scuttling about, annoying onlookers asking me what I’m looking at, etc. Luckily I already know that the fences are a metaphor for our current culture of divisiveness, a rumination on breaking down walls both physical and political between ourselves and the people around us.
After a good 15 minutes, we’re on our way to the second installation. I’m starting to feel a bit queasy. I should be contemplating an exit strategy, but since the bus stops at Washington Square Park (where the project’s installation caused some controversy) this is actually, unfortunately, my most economical way of getting home. Nobody has fallen asleep yet, so that’s a positive sign, although Mr. Baume’s soliloquy as we drive takes on a sort of swaying, somnolent quality.
We arrive at the second exhibition in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, The Unisphere. Then it hits me: WASN’T THIS THING TOTALLY DESTROYED IN MEN IN BLACK?
WOW. I’m loving Ai Weiwei right now. He totally chose this location because of Men In Black. Right? The installation is a playful piece of mesh that runs around the entire globe. It casts spooky shadows, depending on the time of day, and you can even lie in it like a hammock if you want.
The next exhibition is outside Essex Street Market.From across the street the overhang takes on a glowing, ethereal quality. From up close, it casts an elegant silhouette on the sidewalk, and compliments the tropical exterior of the building.
By the time we board the bus again, I’ve grown so desperate that I reach into the tote bag for the Smart Pop. This is a low point for me. Not only does the branding annoy me – what a preposterous assertion that I’m smart for eating this snack! – but I’m a worshipper at the altar of movie theater popcorn, and it’s frowned upon in this particular cult to have popcorn without an XL cola to wash it all back.
So, I’m munching on these flavorless kernels and my self-hatred is growing with every bite. But as with most salty foods, I just can’t stop eating the bland, cardboard-y stuff. I’m going to need a pressure washer to get the white cheddar powder off my fingers tips. This. Is. Hell.
We make it off the bus and walk East 7th Street to one of the last installations.
Apparently, Ai Weiwei used to live in this neighborhood. I don’t have the brain power to understand this particular installation at this point in the tour, so I break off from the group and head back to the office. The exhibition will run Oct. 12 to Feb. 11 with 300 installations across five boroughs. That sounds like the worst bus ride ever.