Ai Weiwei explores freedom of expression on Alcatraz Island

Anna Carey/Senior Staff

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On a cool weekday morning just an hour after dawn, Alcatraz Island lay suspended in the bone-chilling San Francisco Bay, partially obscured by a thin veil of fog. Cold and gray and completely silent, it is the embodiment of imprisonment.

Alcatraz served as home to some of the nation’s most wanted felons — murderers, kidnappers and burglars — while it was open as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. As the quintessential experience of confinement and one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist sites, the island serves as a perfect complement to the work of one of the world’s most prolific, popular and controversial artist-activists, Ai Weiwei.

San Francisco public art organization FOR-SITE invited the Beijing-based artist to install seven original works throughout the island for “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.” Without extra cost to see the show, visitors are invited to experience a dichotomy of the prison experience — both of mid-20th-century gangsters and of today’s political prisoners.

The seven pieces are scattered throughout the complex, and many occupy spaces that are only being opened to the public for the first time. The first is “With Wind,” a giant paper dragon that slithers along the ceiling of the New Industries Building, a barren concrete hall where prisoners used to be “rewarded” with monotonous work in the laundry and manufacturing facility. The kite is painted with electric colors and quotations from famous exiled activists such as Edward Snowden, and it has the Twitter logo for eyes. In a room that still bears the heavy air of suffocating control, one is brought into a metaphor for an impossible desire to fly free.

“Trace,” housed in the next room, conveys a similarly modern aesthetic. Ai carpeted the floor in 176 brightly colored portraits composed of LEGOs. The portraits depict people who have been incarcerated or exiled for their political ties or beliefs, and viewers can look up their stories in books at the entrance of the exhibit or online. From all corners of the globe, these prisoners join together in a powerful and unified depiction of voices that have been silenced.

While visitors can weave around these portraits, the sculpture in “Refraction” is almost removed entirely from where visitors can walk. In the lower gun gallery, one must peek through broken glass to find the lonely structure of steel fans layered in a giant inverted feather. Again, Ai references themes of escape in a closed and cold space.

Ai is known for meditating on such serious themes in all types of media, but he has never before worked with sound. “Stay Tuned” and “Illumination” place visitors in tiny spaces, behind bars or heavy bricks, and fill the rooms with music made by those who have been incarcerated (“Stay Tuned”) and with haunting Tibetan and Native American chants (“Illumination”). The sound engages in a dialogue with the prison’s structure and imbues these spaces with a renewed visceral reality of imprisonment.

The interplay between Alcatraz and Ai’s additions comes to a head in “Blossom,” in which baths, sinks and toilets are full of shattered bits of Chinese porcelain. The sterility of the white bathroom fixtures is juxtaposed with the glass shards. This installation is in the hospital, one of the sites open specially for the exhibit. As a final goodbye, visitors return to the dining hall, the last stop in the Alcatraz tour, where they are invited to write postcards to some of the prisoners Ai has referenced in the exhibit and drop them in mail carts that are sent out regularly by FOR-SITE.

When considered in isolation, each installation holds only lofty thematic links to the others. They each tap into a new level of visitor engagement — sight, sound or touch — and use different media with generally disjointed aesthetic effects. But Ai’s move outside the institution of art and into a public site pushes “@Large” beyond the seven separate installations. He carefully considers the physicality of Alcatraz itself, a feat that becomes all the more powerful when one realizes that the artist never visited the site and likely never will. Like the prisoners to whom he pays tribute, the artist has been trapped in his own country since the Chinese government seized his passport after detainment for criticizing China. “@Large” is best described not in terms of each piece but as one prison complex punctuated by potent commentary on incarceration around the globe.

“@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” is on view until April 26.

Contact Anna Carey at [email protected].