@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

Thanks in part to a grant from the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, I was able to travel to San Francisco to see “@Large Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” (runs from Sept. 27th, 2014 to April 26th, 2015) as research for my dissertation. My work involves the relationship between the Artist and the State and the potential for art to make social change. The three case studies on which I focus are Ai Weiwei in China, Pussy Riot in Russia, and William T. Vollmann in the US. Ai Weiwei’s show, “@Large on Alcatraz,” was a specifically important piece in Ai’s body of work to experience in person, as it was site specific to one of America’s most famous prisons. This allows Ai to comment on imprisonment and social justice in general and to employ the mystique and complicated history of Alcatraz into his site-specific installations. Many of the sites chosen by Ai for his installations are not normally open to the public, which was an added bonus for all attendees during this time frame, regardless if they were there to see the Ai show. 

The first three works were housed in the New Industries Building, a place for inmate work details, building furniture and sewing clothing for government use, and doing laundry for local military bases. The next four pieces are all in the Cellhouse: one in A Block, two in the Hospital, and another in the Dining Hall. 

You enter the New Industries Building on the north end of the island, you are presented with the first piece “With Wind,” and a multi-colored, magical dragon comes at you face first. His color and gaiety is an immediate contrast to the steel and crumbling stone of the building. The dragon fills the room hanging from the ceiling in waves and where it isn’t are hung box kites depicting stylized version of birds and flowers representing countries with severe human rights violations. As you weave beneath the dragon you can read quotes about liberty and justice found in its panels from imprisoned or exiled activists who all share a similar stance in relation to authority and the State.

The next room is a huge hall and presents us with “Trace.” Across the long floor of the hall are placed portraits of 175 political prisoners or exiles all constructed in LEGO pieces with a white LEGO background adjoining them. Some deceased, some still incarcerated or on the run, and such famous names as Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden, and so many others to learn about from around the world.

Down a floor in this building we find, “Refraction,” a massive sculpture, like giant bodiless wings. The “feathers” on these wings are made from the solar panels originally used in Tibetan cookers, a connection to peoples of Tibet, also oppressed by the Chinese government like Ai. This jarring piece can only be viewed through broken windows from the guard’s gun gallery, like a catwalk, high along the south wall. 


Ascending the island and heading south to the Cellhouse—A Block, we are next presented with, “Stay Tuned,” a sound installation, not much visually to experience, but sad and haunting to behold. “Stay Tuned” was made up of music, poetry, and spoken word from diverse political prisoners from around the globe, playing over speaker in twelve different cells, the most important for my work being the punk music of Pussy Riot.

Weaving up into the Hospital portion of the Cellhouse, the exhibit gets even darker. “Illumination” is a piece set in the two psychiatric observation rooms. In the back-to-back rooms, the visitor gets on the left the sound of Tibetan chanting and on the right, Hopi Indian chanting. Here Ai makes a contrast between China’s and the US’s treatment of marginalized populations, choosing chanting as the repetitive sounds are often a method for prisoners to calm mental or emotional duress. It is in the Hospital section that we also find, “Blossom.” This installation turns the utilitarian fixtures of the offices and examination rooms into containers for delicate, white porcelain bouquets of flowers bursting forth from drains in sinks and tubs. The petals seemed to shimmer when lights fell on them through the caged windows.

The last piece was in the Dining Hall, a commons for interaction and sustenance, and therefore a place for an audience interactive installation, “Yours Truly.” This piece cannot work without the visitors to Alcatraz. In this wide room are set up tables and standing wooden racks of postcards. Between the racks are postal carts and on each postcard is the name and prison address of an incarcerated activist. The addresses are all over the world and the illustration on the card is either a local flower or bird from that country. In “Yours Truly” a visitor to Alcatraz has the chance to write something of support to an incarcerated political prisoner and Ai’s crew will mail them all off. Ai Weiwei had a crew of his workers set this whole show up for him at Alcatraz since the Chinese government still has his passport and he is not allowed to leave the country. It has been this way since his incarceration in 2011 when he was held for eighty-one days in prison. 


All photos were taken on an iPhone 5.