An important exhibit by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei recently opened on Alcatraz. Called @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz the exhibit is installed throughout the prison; the artworks address themes of freedom and imprisonment using different media and methods of interacting with the viewers.
Ai Weiwei is an internationally renowned artist known for provocative work that often has political themes. He achieved worldwide fame beyond the art world as part of the design team for the Beijing National Stadium, known popularly as the “Birds Nest”, for the 2008 Summer Olympics. In 2011 he was arrested and held for 81 days for being a prominent and outspoken critic of the Chinese government. As of this writing in October 2014, the Chinese government has retained his passport, keeping him from leaving China.
Because of his inability to travel outside of China Ai was unable to visit Alcatraz during the planning, execution, and installation of the exhibit. He relied on information provided to him by the US sponsor of the exhibit, the FOR-SITE Foundation, an arts organization dedicated to the creation, presentation, and understanding of art about place. FOR-SITE had previously worked with Ai on a site-specific exhibition at San Francisco’s Presidio. After his arrest and subsequent release the director of the foundation met with him and they developed the ideas that became @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.
I began my tour of the exhibit in the New Industries Building, a part of Alcatraz that has not been open to the public prior to this exhibit. A former factory where inmates worked, the New Industries Building contains three large-scale art works: “With Wind”, “Trace”, and “Refraction”. Both “With Wind” and “Trace” offer a lot of user interaction, with the ability to walk under and around the works and see them up close and from a distance.
At first glance “With Wind” looks like a traditional Chinese dragon kite surrounded by smaller kites of birds, their beautiful colors sweeping above the large factory floor. Looked at closer, imagery of barbed wire appears and segments of the dragon contain statements about freedom (click on the photos below to enlarge them and see some of the slogans and details).
“Trace” is a series of portraits constructed out of Lego of people from around the world who have been detained because of their beliefs. Installed on the factory floor, the pixilated portraits sometimes dissolve as you approach and only become legible from a distance. Aside from a few people like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, I was unfamiliar with most of the 176 people portrayed; fortunately, around the perimeter of the gallery are lecterns with biographies of the people in the portraits. This information is also available here on the FOR-SITE Foundation’s website. I also found that the medium of Lego created some tension; I needed to be aware of my steps as I walked close to the artworks so as not to step on it and have to wonder how the work will fare when the space gets crowded.
“Refraction” is a massive sculpture of a bird’s wing constructed out of solar reflectors used for cooking in Tibet, along with tea kettles. Unlike the first two artworks however, this piece is trapped inside its gallery space and can only be viewed at a distance in broken glances through windows, also broken; the view is further limited by reflections of a hill that’s outside the narrow corridor from which you view this work.
Upon exiting from the corridor you climb a steep stair that brings you to a walkway above “Trace” and for the first time lets you see it from above.
From here, the exhibit moves to the Cellhouse, the main part of the jail that people who have visited Alcatraz will be familiar with. We started on the second floor in the Hospital wing with “Blossom”.
At first viewable only from a distance through doorways, the art works looked almost like giant wads of toilet paper filling sinks, urinals, and toilets; it was only as I moved through the hospital wing and gained access to view them up close could I see that these were finely detailed porcelain bouquets designed to turn utilitarian objects into things of beauty.
Nearby, in the Hospital’s two psychiatric observation rooms, there is a sound installation called “Illumination” with Tibetan and Native American chanting.
Downstairs, in the main part of the jail in Cellblock A, is “Stay Tuned” another sound installation featuring music, poetry, and spoken word by people who have been arrested for their beliefs. With sound being piped in through air vents, and a single stool in each cell on which to sit while listening, this work invites you to be part of the exhibit as people walk by and look at you listening.
The final art work, “Yours Truly”, also invites participation. A array of post cards pre-addressed to prisoners depicted in “Trace” (those who are still alive and for whom there are addresses) sits in the middle of the dining hall. You can choose a card and write a message which will be mailed by the exhibit organizers. Of course the unseen, final part of the exhibit, will be on the receiving end where I imagine prisons throughout the world flooded by thousands of postcards.
@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz will be on exhibit until April 26, 2015. Entry is free with a ticket to Alcatraz ($30). Reservations are recommended; the ferries to Alcatraz normally book up in advance and this exhibit will likely increase attendance. Docent-led tours by the Golden Gate National Parks Concervancy, one of the sponsoring partners of the exhibit, are available for $50.
I’d also recommend trying to book the first ferry of the day at 8:45 am, as my friends and I did. It was great seeing the artworks with very few people around and I imagine that as the crowds get larger later in the day, that seeing the art becomes more difficult and annoying.by