In what many consider the hottest ticket in the art world, China’s best known dissident, artist Ai Weiwei, has created a series of works on the former prison island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay. The seven installations, all centered on the themes of human rights and political freedoms, open to the public on September 27.
Since the Chinese government won’t allow Weiwei to leave the country, he created the installations in his Beijing studio and utilized a team at Alcatraz to execute them. The show, entitled @Large, was the brainchild of Cheryl Haines, Executive Director of the For-Site Foundation.
Alcatraz was selected as the venue for Weiwei’s work because the artist felt that a place of physical imprisonment was a fitting setting for art that explored political and spiritual loss of freedom. Further pushing the connection with incarceration, the installations have been placed in sections of Alcatraz, which up until now, have not been accessible to the public.
The installations are thought-provoking and compelling commentaries on political dissent and restrictions on freedoms. Coming as they do from an artist who has himself been incarcerated, Weiwei speaks to a reality that is foreign to Americans but all too common in many countries.
With Wind is a contemporary version of a large scale Chinese dragon kite that snakes through the expanse of the Industry Building. A number of the kite’s panels contain references from various countries’ restrictions to liberty.
175 portraits constructed in Legos spill across the floor in the Trace installation. Each portrait portrays an individual who has been imprisoned or exiled due to their beliefs.
Refraction, a large metallic installation modeled after a bird’s wing evokes the sense of flight with one paradox; the gigantic wing is “trapped” in an inaccessible room and is visible only through the glass of the so-called “gun gallery”.
Stay Tuned is a sound installation within 12 individual prison cells. Each cell plays a recording of spoken words, music, or poetry from a specific person who has been imprisoned for their creative expressions.
Illumination, occurring in the psychiatric observation cells, is another sound installation. Recordings of Hopi chants and Buddhist monks, strangely similar, remind one of Native Americans who were once prisoners of conscience at Alcatraz.
Blossom consists of delicately crafted ceramic flowers that fill the tubs, toilets, and sinks of the hospital cells. Could this be a reference to China’s Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, a brief tolerance of free expression that was followed by a crackdown on dissent?
An interactive work, Yours Truly, encourages visitors to write postcards to some of the dissidents shown in Trace, as a reminder that these prisoners of conscience are not forgotten.
Whether the average tourist to Alcatraz (and there are 1.6 million visitors a year there) will grasp the import of Weiwei’s message, they will certainly be impressed with the sheer magnitude of these artistic statements. These works will perhaps give pause to some viewers who have never considered that liberty means more than being able to acquire any material goods one desires; that freedom to speak, to believe, to create, are indeed priceless.
Here’s a link to my photographs: http://www.pinterest.com/gcalys/ai-weiwei-large/
And the @Large website with plenty of images: http://www.for-site.org/project/ai-weiwei-alcatraz/