Currently on view at Alcatraz is @Large, an impressive, site-specific installation of the work of 57-year-old Chinese artist and political activist Ai Wei Wei. Ai often uses large sculptural installations and spoken word to express his criticism of the Chinese government. Ai’s use of a former military facility and former federal prison to display this work is no coincidence.
The harshness of the setting and the memories it arouses are an essential part of the show’s concept and pieces. Ai himself has been imprisoned for his political beliefs.
Ai’s activity on social media is what led to both his imprisonment and his fame. On his blog, http://aiweiwei.com, Ai has created over 2,400 posts about his opinions on current events, interviews and art that he created or was inspired by. His blog was shut down on May 28, 2009 after he reported a story on dead school children, which the Chinese government aimed to cover up. Ai’s post had nearly 13 million readers.
Ai comes into his activism naturally. His father, Ai Qing, was also an activist who was threatened and punished for writing poetry that criticized the Chinese government. During his childhood, Ai told the Telegraph, “My father was punished by being made to clean the public toilet for five years. I grew up in those conditions. He was criticized and beaten and kept in very severe physical deprivation.”
Ai Qing was punished during the Cultural Revolution in 1967 and was sent to live in a remote village as a result. Though his son has faced different methods of punishment, the lives of both men hold the common thread of isolation at the hands of the Chinese government.
In 2011, Ai was secretly detained by Chinese authorities for 81 days, and then placed under house arrest. He is currently unable to leave China. Because of this, Ai was unable to visit the @Large, San Francisco exhibition site, and so all works on display were designed and constructed by Ai and his team in Beijing, who then sent instructions for installation and material lists to the For-Site Foundation, an arts foundation in San Francisco that works with the Parks Conservancy and organized the @Large show.
Ai’s exhibit is made rich by his own beliefs about and experiences with prisons and power, and the location of the installments adds to the pieces within the jail. Because of this, Alcatraz’s layered history is important to know and understand before visiting the exhibit.
Visitors to the exhibit are first greeted by “With Wind:” a multitude of wind free rainbow-hued kites, airborne dragons, sparrows, and owls, hung in the New Industries Building.
In the room beyond it, “Trace,” a display of large-scale Lego portraits of prisoners of conscience from across the world draws attention to the number of journalists, activists, politicians and even children—who, like Ai, have been imprisoned, killed, or made to disappear because they chose to speak out against some injustice. Beside each Lego tapestry of portraits is a pedestal with a book in which visitors can read up on the histories and beliefs of each person depicted.
In addition to its use as a prison, Alcatraz has a military history, which is touched upon by another display in the New Industries building, viewable from the gun gallery. In the display “Refraction,” sun reflects off the silver panels of Tibetan solar ovens, and heats the pots and pans that rest against it. The materials composing the sculpture represent the daily struggle Tibetan people go through in China and on the Tibetan Plateau. The physical shape of the wing, bent and constricted, is intended to represent the plight of the Tibetan people at the hands of the Chinese government.
By making the wing only viewable through the windows through which armed guards would have watched the prisoners of Alcatraz and soldiers would have watched the bay for enemy ships, Ai effectively places the viewer in an uncomfortable position, able to watch the broken wing (the suffering of the Tibetan people) but unable to do anything to help.
In the psychiatric hospital, two installations, called “Bloom” and “Illumination,” are featured. Both exhibits are located inside the green hospital rooms. These rooms are completely bare, save for a porcelain sink or toilet and a single lightbulb.
Ai has filled the porcelain fixtures with exquisite porcelain flowers; ”blooms” of free speech offer a fresh representation of the Hundred Flowers Campaign. There was a time in 1956 when the Chinese public was able to speak openly about the Communist Party; the campaign was shut down, and many who had spoken out were persecuted.
By placing these beautiful and delicate arrangements in the derelict setting of decrepit prison hospital cells, Ai highlights the beauty that comes from the freedom of expression, of hearing all voices.
Although each of the seven installations on the island center on ideas of freedom and repression, some exhibits link directly to Alcatraz’s history as a prison.
“Illimination” is a profound sound installation in the green chambers of the isolation rooms. Two chants—one from the Hopi Eagle Dance, which sings of the eagle’s healing power, and the other from a Tibetan chant for the Buddhist goddess, Palden Lhamo, protectress of Tibet, play and haunt the visitor. “Illumination” pays homage specifically to 19 Hopi men who were sent to the prison in 1895 for refusing to assimilate and allow their children to be taken to BIA boarding schools.
By placing these recordings in the isolation chambers, Ai highlights the sense of extreme solitude and loneliness faced by prisoners of conscience and political prisoners.
This sense of isolation is also played upon in the Cell Block A installation “Stay Tuned.” Each cell holds a single stainless steel stool. In each cell a recording plays of the voice of an imprisoned political and social activist or group. The voices range from the familiar—a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a song by the Russian punk band Pussy Riot—to the lesser known, but no less important, such as the Tibetan singer Lolo, who spoke against the Chinese government’s treatment of his people.
Not only does the @Large exhibit bring attention to injustices across the world and the importance of freedom of speech and expression, but it actively involves visitors in a fight for these rights. In the final installation, “Yours Truly” located in the dining hall, visitors have the opportunity to write a postcard to prisoners of conscience around the world and to join a public conversation on the exhibit through Twitter.