If you’ve seen the Guggenheim’s muscular, rigorous new exhibition, “Art and China After 1989,” for which Mr. Ai has curated the film program, you will not be surprised by the forthright advocacy of these lamppost portraits, as well as “Arch” and other blunt interventions at city bus stops. In the 1990s he took an impish tack, whether he was photographing a flasher in Tiananmen Square or dropping a millennia-old Chinese urn, in biting parody of both western performance art and Cultural Revolution iconoclasm. His art turned to direct advocacy in 2008, when he began his essential “Citizen’s Investigation” of the death toll of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, whose results are on view at the Guggenheim. Since then he has reoriented his sculpture, videos, and social media accounts to serve almost as a broadcast medium for Chinese and global freedom — and, as a result, he has endured frequent gripes that his activism has got the better of his art.
I’ve always found that gripe to be unfounded. Like his hero Duchamp, Mr. Ai has wholly erased any border between his art and his life — and there are some emergencies, among them the displacement of more human beings than any time since World War II, that this artist can only address with bluntness. That sometimes lends itself to less challenging sculpture, like in Washington Square, or simple boosterism, as in the refugee portrait banners. Step back, though, and look at the project in aggregate, and “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” displays all the confidence and moral passion of his most important later projects.
One of the great surprises of this citywide artistic outcry is that Mr. Ai’s obstructions — “very almost-art, but maybe, maybe not,” as he told The New York Times last week — don’t actually disrupt the city very much, but plug into the urban fabric of New York with an ease I found disturbing.
Passengers waiting for the bus on 125th Street behind Mr. Ai’s barricades went right on with their commutes. Tourists in Corona Park were taking their selfies with a fence in frame. At Cooper Union and in Washington Square, metal barriers from the N.Y.P.D. echoed the artist’s own. South of “Gilded Cage,” shoppers on Fifth Avenue wended through ad hoc concrete obstacles around the president’s own tower. Mr. Ai’s citywide checkpoints are a hundred muted bells that add up to a deafening alarm: We have accepted so many physical and political limits that new ones go unnoticed, and we may not protest our shrinking freedom until it’s too late.