While he is currently barred from leaving China, renowned artist and activist Ai Weiwei has been working on “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” since his release from prison in 2011. Incarcerated for his politically outspoken artwork, Ai used his experience as fuel for a unique exhibition that fills the historical former prison and military fortress with site-specific installations that draw attention to human rights crises worldwide. Orchestrated remotely with the help of San Francisco-based curator Cheryl Haines and legions of volunteers, the exhibition is as much a spectacle as it is an educational experience.
The tension between freedom and imprisonment permeates the exhibition and the site of Alcatraz itself. Though it once housed thousands of convicts — including some high profile felons like Al Capone, whose face is heavily marketed to attract tourists to the island — it was also the site of Native American rights protests in the late 1960s and early ’70s. It is now a national park. Ai Weiwei utilized the labyrinthine structures of the former prison — including areas formerly off-limits to visitors, like the hospital, psych ward and New Industries building — to house his immersive, large-scale artworks.
Upon entering the New Industries building, visitors are greeted by the two most visually compelling installations of the show. With Wind, an immersive kite installation, evokes the giant dragon puppets used at Chinese New Year parades, a familiar sight for San Francisco residents. The dragon is flanked by winged, butterfly-like kites adorned with psychedelic patterns. Amid the fluorescent colors of the handmade, silk kites, one can find quotes from Ai Weiwei and other activists: “Every one of us is a potential convict,” a sage Ai Weiwei writes. “… Privacy is a function of liberty,” state the words of Edward Snowden. These topics ground the kite’s levity, asking viewers to contemplate these weighty aphorisms amid the visual splendor.
The textual subject matter of With Wind only offers a small taste of the intellectually-heavy terrain that follows in the rest of the exhibition. Trace, an expansive LEGO portrait series that depicts the faces of 176 censored and detained activists, invites viewers to learn about people who have been incarcerated and persecuted for their political beliefs worldwide. There are famous faces the average exhibition-goer will recognize, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but most of the people pictured are lesser-known. Some, like Edward Snowden, are not universally accepted as heroes. Many of them remain incarcerated and it remains to be seen whether or how they will be remembered in history.
Though the inclusion of a portrait might look like an endorsement from the artist, Ai’s intention is to inspire viewers to educate themselves. Large catalogues with biographies of all of the subjects are kept on pedestals surrounding the piece, and Ai had wi-fi enabled on the island to allow viewers to look up the obscure references in his work. A similar theme is reflected in two sound installations located in A Block and the prison hospital, where the songs, poems and religious chants of persecuted people — from Russian punk band Pussy Riot to the Hopi tribe — echo through the prison’s chambers.
A five-ton metal sculpture of a bird wing called Refraction is also kept in the New Industries building, but it is only visible from a narrow hallway called the gun gallery. Here, armed prison guards once kept watch over the grounds. As one walks through the gun gallery, Refraction is only visible through broken glass. The giant, caged bird wing becomes symbolic. It appears trapped, like the walls are inhibiting its enormous potential for flight. It’s easy to draw a parallel to a brilliant mind unable to express itself from behind bars.
Perhaps a somewhat hopeful antidote to Refraction is Yours Truly, an interactive installation in the dining hall where viewers are invited to take postcards addressed to incarcerated activists whom Ai Weiwei refers to as “prisoners of conscience.” Another piece, Blossom, similarly invites a glimmer of hope and beauty amid this bleak environment. Located in the prison hospital, the piece is a collection of ceramic bouquet sculptures that spring from the sinks, bath tubs and toilets. Perhaps their blossoms can serve as a reminder to keep striving for a more just world. Flowers can bloom from the most unlikely places.
Though Ai doesn’t shy away from expressing his beliefs in the public sphere, the art in “@Large” is inquisitive rather than didactic. “Any artist who isn’t an activist is a dead artist,” he boldly claims in his show statement. In illuminating cases of human rights violations and censorship, he invites viewers to contemplate the meaning of freedom, drawing attention to the legacies of the peaceful protestors, artists and activists who don’t have the level of notoriety and media exposure as Ai himself.
“@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” is on view September 27 through April 27.
View of Alcatraz from the ferry coming from San Francisco.
The New Industries building, where most of Ai Weiwei’s installations are housed.
Howard Levitt, communications director of the National Park Service, and “@Large” curator Cheryl Haines
With Wind, a kite installation by Ai Weiwei, greets visitors at the entrance of the exhibition.
View of Trace, an enormous installation that features the portraits of international human rights activists censored or incarcerated for their beliefs. The piece is composed of over a million LEGO pieces.
Refraction is a metal bird wing sculpture only visible from the gun gallery, a narrow hallway from which armed guards once watched over the prison grounds. Visitors can only observe the piece through broken glass.
View of With Wind from the gun gallery.
View of San Francisco from the dilapidated prison grounds.
Stay Tuned is a sound installation that occupies the cells in A Block. In each cell, one can hear the songs and poems of those who have been detained for the creative expression of their beliefs, such as Russian punk band Pussy Riot, Tibentan poet Lolo, Jewish composer Pavel Haas and other politically-charged artists.
Located in the prison hospital, the Blossom installation juxtaposes delicate ceramic flowers with their austere environment.
Yours Truly is an interactive piece in the Dining Hall, where visitors will find postcards addressed to people serving prison terms for their political activism worldwide. Exhibition-goers are invited to write messages to the detained.