THE BLOG
01/15/2015 08:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Artist is Absent: Ai Weiwei @Large on Alcatraz

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Fine art works should be like sunshine from the blue sky and the breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles.

- Chinese president Xi Jinping, speaking at the October 2014 Beijing Forum on Literature and Art

There will always be the need for specialized facilities for the desperados, the irredeemable, and the ruthless, but Alcatraz and all that it had come to mean now belong, we may hope, to history.

- Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, James Bennett, on the closing of the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz in 1963

Any artist who is not an activist is a dead artist.

- Ai Weiwei

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24 hours after the terrorist slaughter at the offices of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, daytrippers sailed to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay on a picture postcard day to be met with another ominous reminder of how fragile is our freedom of expression. Seven installations by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei sprout amid the rusting steel bars, broken windows and peeling paint of a cellblock, a dining hall, hospital ward, and a forced labor facility (euphemistically labeled the New Industries Building when it was built in 1939).

A thorn in the side of the Chinese government, Ai has been stripped of his passport and is no longer free to travel. Government censors are perennially trying to stamp out his prankish, irreverent presence on social media as well as his more sober internet campaigns, such as the organizing of volunteers to compile and publish the names of the more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, buried alive under the rubble of shoddily built public schools.

As C. Wright Mills argued, "those without power need to connect personal troubles with public issues" and Ai has taken it on himself to create those connections at great risk to himself. Thus he continues to create and exhibit work, much of it site specific, in elaborate cross-continent collaborations with curators and craftspeople, sometimes armies of them, from Taipei to Tokyo, Brooklyn, Berlin, and Blenheim Palace.

One would have to be in a coma to miss the great irony of this latest exhibit at Alcatraz - the site of the transformation of a Civil War-era fortress into a military prison, then an infamous federal penitentiary, and now a sanctuary for nesting birds - by an art world superstar who rails vociferously against violators of human rights while he himself is effectively incarcerated.

Birds and images of a suppressed desire for flight figure prominently in three of the installations - most spookily in "Refraction," a monstrous, mutant velociraptor, assembled from concave reflective panels ripped from Tibetan solar cookers. These are welded to giant ribs of steel and improbably mounted with humble tea kettles and other cookware. Caged in a gloomy cellar, this hulking sci-fi beast can be seen only by peering through grimy, splintered window panes lining a narrow walkway, a gun gallery from which armed guards kept an eye on prisoners at work in the laundries and workshops of the New Industries Building. To constrict the viewer's perspective was a deliberate decision, but publicity photos of the sculpture from an unobstructed vantage point convey a tension and a majesty that one misses from the gun gallery.

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Less arresting was an exhibit of brightly painted kites suspended from a ceiling, the centerpiece of which was a cartoonish, long-tailed kite with the head of a dragon and quotes from famous agitators inscribed on its scales. (Edward Snowden's "privacy is a function of liberty" struck a vapid note in contrast with Ai's piercing "every one of us is a potential convict.")

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Detail from Ai Weiwei's With Wind. Photo: Carla Escoda

In an installation poignantly titled "Yours Truly," birds and flowers native to Thailand, Cuba, Russia and other countries with a penchant for stomping all over habeas corpus decorate postcards stacked on shelves in the main dining hall. The cards are pre-addressed to political prisoners in jails in each of the countries; the public is invited to sit at the refectory tables and write a personal note to one of these prisoners. As a 10-year-old sitting next to her labored over his handwriting, Ballet to the People did not have the heart to suggest to him that his chosen prisoner was unlikely to receive it - rather like breaking the news that there is no Santa Claus.

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It was heartening to see so many families with children absorbed in the installations, wandering into claustrophobic cells, busily snapping selfies, their chatter weaving through the sounds of music and poetry by persecuted artists - including Russia's Pussy Riot, Tibetan singer Lolo, Nigeria's Fela Kuti, and the Czech underground rock band The Plastic People of the Universe - piped into each cell through air vents. Art does not always require a serene, contemplative space in which to take it in, and no doubt the iconoclast Ai - who scoffs at much that is considered precious in the art world - would be gratified by the diversity and the casualness of the crowd. But the impact of his sound installations is diminished by the helter-skelter.

Perhaps he would have designed the entire project differently had he been free to visit Alcatraz from its conception and to personally oversee the work.

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The most breathtaking of the installations was the smallest and subtlest. "Blossom" filled a succession of corroded sinks, toilets and tubs with collections of tiny, delicate flowers sculpted out of creamy white porcelain. Barred doors keep viewers at a distance, save for one cell in which we can approach for a closer look. The installation was reportedly inspired by the Hundred Flowers Campaign, in which Mao Zedong invited the intelligentsia to express themselves freely. Launched in 1956 - the year before Ai was born - its blossoming so unnerved Mao that he slammed on the brakes within a year and packed the free-speakers, among them Ai's father, prominent poet Ai Qing, off to labor camps or to jail. Ai spent his early childhood years in exile with his family in the Gobi Desert, witness to his father's daily humiliations.

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Detail from Ai Weiwei's Blossom. Photo: Carla Escoda

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The fragility, and the power, of free expression as conveyed by these dainty, brittle petals sculpted from finely ground bone - set in vessels designed for cleansing, for washing away undesirable elements - was perhaps no more affecting than on the day after Kalashnikov-wielding jihadis mowed down 12 cartoonists and journalists, armed only with pens and pencils.

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More ambitious in scale are the vast expanses of carpet, titled "Trace" and fabricated entirely from millions of toy LEGO bricks. These form the names and pixelated portraits of 176 famous and not-so-famous martyrs and prisoners of conscience from 33 countries - primarily China, but also 16 prisoners from Vietnam, 15 from Bahrain, and 6 from the United States, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. This work alone required a team of over 80 volunteers in San Francisco to assist in piecing together the LEGO portraits from Ai's designs.

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As Ballet to the People wandered around the carpets, looking down at the blurred, grainy faces and trying to make out the names inscribed in freewheeling fonts, she recalled a troubling tale of two Filipino children who once roamed the street outside Manila's Fort Santiago during the Japanese occupation of the 1940's. The ancient storied fort, built by Spanish conquistadors, was used by the Japanese as a prison, torture chamber, and execution hall for hundreds of Filipinos and Americans. Dead bodies would be thrown over the fort walls onto the street on one side, or into the river on the other. Prisoners' relatives would comb through the piles of corpses daily, uncertain of the fate of their family members. Tony and Bing Escoda, in the company of their aunts, undertook this grim task daily for months, searching for the bodies of their parents, Josefa Llanes and Antonio Escoda, who were rumored to have been executed after they refused to disclose the names of hundreds of their brethren in the underground resistance movement in Manila. In the end, their bodies were never found and were assumed to have been tossed in the river.

Ballet to the People tried to shake the image of her father as a boy hunting through the mutilated, decomposing bodies that littered the ground outside Fort Santiago. She was thankful to be distracted by an energetic little boy, whose attempts to reconfigure one of Ai's LEGO portraits into Spiderman had to be thwarted.

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View of Ai Weiwei's Trace. Photo: Carla Escoda

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Details from Ai Weiwei's Trace. Photo: Carla Escoda

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Details from Ai Weiwei's Trace. Photo: Carla Escoda

LEGO may be the Campbell soup can of this generation of artists (Ai was an admirer of Warhol, whom he got to know when he lived in New York in the 1980's) but as portrait carpet tile it has its limitations. Ai's most powerful work, not on display here, unites form and material in more imaginative and provocative ways - like the army of antique wooden stools, 6,000 strong, that overran the massive atrium of the Martin-Gropius-Bau last year, simple and dignified in their collective individuality; the 150 tons of mangled rebar from the Sichuan earthquake painstakingly hammered into straight rods and piled into a wavelike structure at the Venice Biennale; his towering bicycle sculptures; the relief maps carved in marble of the Diaoyu Islands (the subject of a bitter territorial dispute with Japan); and the photographic evidence of the artist blithely dropping and smashing a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty urn.

When she conceived The Artist is Present, performance artist Marina Abramović says, she knew instantly that it was the right piece because the mere thought of it made her nauseous. For three months, all day, everyday, she sat silent and motionless at a table in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art as members of the public approached, one at a time, to sit opposite her. There was no talking, no touching, no overt communication of any kind.

- Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary

What we miss on Alcatraz is proclaimed in the very title of the exhibit: @Large highlights the artist's absence, while also alluding to his mastery of social media, his celebrity, his physical heft, and his status in the eyes of the Chinese government as a wanted criminal who, no matter how much they threaten him and slap him around (he suffered a brain injury after one round of beatings by the police), keeps slipping through their grasp. He apparently will not be silenced, nor will he stop advocating for those whose voices do not carry as far as his.

The idea of Alcatraz as a backdrop, a site of so much trauma, must have been irresistible to an artist whose work frequently draws on historical memory to counter the abuse of power. Other artists have used Alcatraz as a setting, perhaps none more potently than Amie Dowling and Austin Forbord in the mesmerizing film, Well Contested Sites.

Well Contested Sites from Rapt Productions on Vimeo.

We hold The Rock.

- Richard Oakes, Mohawk spokesman for the Native American tribes who occupied Alcatraz from 1969-71, justifying their claim under the terms of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie

As we jog between buildings on the steep paths of Alcatraz, another conspicuous irony can be found in the parade of massive container ships, mainly Chinese, as they swan under the Golden Gate Bridge toward the port of Oakland, delivering our blue jeans, refrigerators, and iPhone 6's. (The latter are also popular in China, where they are known as the "Kidney 6" - a reference to the practice of selling a kidney to a foreigner in need of a transplant. Today's market price for a kidney in China will cover the cost of an iPhone 6.)

Chugging back across the Pacific, these container ships carry America's trash, mountains of recycled paper and plastic - and a huge chunk of America's trade deficit. Which is to say that most of the containers return to China empty. China's growing maritime power is down to advances in manufacturing and shipping made possible by disruptive tech that was mostly invented in America, while the safe passage of commercial shipping in the Pacific is conveniently secured by the U.S. Pacific Fleet, based in Pearl Harbor. Closer to home, however, China flexes its maritime muscle militarily, in its bullying of smaller Asian nations over valuable resources in the South China Sea.

Smarting from over a century of invasion and pillaging by Western powers and Japan, including the Opium Wars, it is no surprise that China's notions of the responsibilities that go with regional and global leadership conform to those of no other nation today.

Ai Weiwei readily acknowledges that his celebrity is in no small measure due to the oppressive tactics of the Chinese government.

If a wedge is to come between this irresistible force and immovable object, it may well be the handiwork of the artists of Hong Kong's nascent Umbrella Movement. This civil disobedience campaign is aimed at holding China's feet to the fire on the promise made at the time of the 1997 handover from British rule, to allow Hong Kong to move toward a full democracy on its own terms. It was born out of a campaign known as Occupy Central With Peace and Love, in which groups led mainly by students sought to take over several key thoroughfares in the bustling city. The yellow umbrella became the accidental symbol of the Occupy movement, after protestors started wielding umbrellas to protect themselves not only from rain, but also from pepper spray and tear gas fired by the police.

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Photo: Reuters

Professor Kacey Wong of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University School of Design was one of several who orchestrated outbursts of street art to inspire the protesters. A "logo competition" for the movement, which attracted hundreds of entries, is now catalogued on Wong's Facebook page. A conversation with him highlights the sharp divide between artists in Hong Kong and China, the former having grown up in a much freer world than the latter. Though they may share bloodlines, language, and a desire for democracy, travel restrictions and mistrust often isolate Chinese artists from their Hong Kong brethren. "The danger of 'being disappeared'" as Wong puts it, is a very real threat that keeps him and other Hong Kong artists out of China.

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Umbrella Movement logo competition entry, inspired by Eugène Delacroix' 1830 "Liberty Leading the People." Artwork by Pedro Shi, courtesy Kacey Wong.

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"Righteousness": Umbrella Movement logo competition entry. Artwork by Chun Man, courtesy Kacey Wong.

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"Umbrella Splitting Communism": Umbrella Movement logo competition entry. Artwork by Lam Man Tat, courtesy Kacey Wong.

Yet there is an honorable tradition of student protests in China that dates back to the 19th century after China lost the First Sino-Japanese War and was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki. Today, Hong Kong students are inspired by the 1989 Tiananmen protests, and what the Chinese government must fear most is that a cough in Hong Kong will give the rest of the country pneumonia.

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Kacey Wong manning his art project booth on the streets of Hong Kong. Photo courtesy Kacey Wong.

Though he stays out of China, Wong has been approached by mainland visitors while Occupying Hong Kong's streets: "The younger generation from China are much more open. The older generation comes to support the students, too, since they have firsthand experience of mainland injustice, and don't want Hong Kong to become like just another Chinese city." He contrasts this attitude to that of the older generation of Hong Kongers "whose world view is very narrow, who are just being selfish and pretending to live in a world of the past."

Wong mused on Edward Snowden's choice of Hong Kong as the citadel from which to lob his digital grenades at the U.S. military-industrial complex:

Most Hong Kong people think Snowden's choice indicates Hong Kong is still a 'free' city, but this is changing quickly due to recent incidents in which the police use excessive violence, and seem to be cooperating with the triads [Chinese criminal gangs], selectively enforcing the law... all signs presaging the downfall of Hong Kong at the hands of its own government. Most Hong Kong people treasure their internet rights and don't want their internet to be heavily manipulated like in mainland China, so I think it is fair to say most Hong Kongers still see Snowden as a hero to have "busted" the U.S. government - even though he basically jumped ship from one villain to another [now that he has sought refuge in Russia].

Street protests in Hong Kong have focused mainly on restrictions placed by the Chinese authorities on universal suffrage. Deep down, however, they reflect not only frustration with authoritarian Beijing, but also anger at Hong Kong's glaring income inequality. There is a sense among the youth that they are being squeezed out - not just by the elite Hong Kong families who have dominated the economy since the British colonial era, but also by nouveau riche mainlanders. In one of the world's most densely populated cities, where despite overt prosperity, many are forced in live in "cage homes" and tiny spaces the size of prison cells on Alcatraz, Wong chose to highlight these inhuman conditions and mock the pretensions of Hong Kong real estate developers in an artwork called Paddling Home.

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Paddling Home, Kacey Wong. Photo courtesy Kacey Wong.

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Paddling Home, Kacey Wong. Photo courtesy Kacey Wong.

This four-foot-by-four-foot floating unit mimics the typical Hong Kong apartment in miniature, complete with airconditioner, TV antenna, stainless steel gate, and "luxury" features like a bay window. Two oars protrude from the walls, allowing the resident to paddle slowly around Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour - though he must take care to avoid the ferries, cruise ships, barges and fishing boats that make this one of the world's busiest ports. Paddling Home salutes the adaptable, intrepid Hong Kongers, even as it points out the precariousness of their situation, and asks if this is really any way to live.

By the standards of any world city, the Hong Kong Occupiers were a model of restraint and courtesy. They left the streets clean. They bathed. Unlike the hooligans in Berkeley, California - who protested the verdict in Ferguson by burning trash and looting stores, passing around champagne at a Whole Foods - they did not terrorize local residents. The unfurling of yellow umbrellas has become a ritual - now commonly practiced by a handful of pro-democracy legislators whenever a senior official stands up to speak in the chambers of Hong Kong's Legislative Council.

Veteran Asia analyst Harvey Stockwin observes: "The Umbrella Movement has been hailed as a success story... It showed that they [Hong Kong's youth] could articulate the grievances and injustices that made life difficult for all Hong Kongers.

But Stockwin questions "the relevance of occupying techniques of protest in the Hong Kong environment."

For a place that is already over-occupied, further adding to the normally abnormal human pressure in Central is unlikely to have any positive political results... Protesters and Occupy organisers were blind to the ever-expanding inconvenience and the ever-increasing cost to Hong Kong citizens of their unacceptably over-extensive occupation... Many rejoiced in the fact that a civil disobedience campaign accompanied the occupations. What was lost sight of was the fact that civil disobedience campaigns are supposed to persuade citizens of the virtues of the course being pursued - not to be part of a movement which annoys or irritates citizens.

In reality, there was (as far as I can see) only one moment when a modest degree of persuasion might just might have been possible. That was somewhere towards the end of September. The initial police use of tear gas to suppress the occupy demonstrations aroused wider public opinion. The brief opportunity was there to capitalize on the growing potentially massive support for the protesters by suspending the occupy part, and pledging instead to hold huge protest demonstrations every Sunday until the Standing Committee's dictate was amended. If such regular processions had been held they might, I stress might, have had some impact... Beijing would have preferred not to see dramatic pictures of huge processions stretching from Victoria Park to Central, plastered all over the international press every week, and curtailing the powers of the proposed 2017 nominating committee would have been a small price to pay to achieve it.

In any event, what might have happened would have been far better than what actually happened. The Occupy movement instead concentrated upon a relatively small number of supporters crowding into Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay for a further two months (from the end of September until the end of November) causing widespread disruption and inconvenience, loss of income and increased public irritation. Almost certainly China's Liaison Office here was able to accurately report back to Beijing on Hong Kong's diminished support for the democratic cause. As a result of the Occupy episode Hong Kong democrats are now probably unable to mount the huge processions that once strengthened their cause.

- Harvey Stockwin on RTHK, "Reflections from Asia"

Kacey Wong acknowledges: "I think what we're facing right now will not be resolved even after I die. It is a war on culture." He is pragmatic:

"This is not the time for individual glory... Everybody can do something... Most designers say 'I can't do anything, I still need to practice my business, blah blah blah.' But actually, anybody can contribute. You first have to understand what you can offer, right? Maybe if you're only good at taking pictures, take a picture. Or if you're only good at talking, set up a forum. If you are a lawyer, help those protesters who got arrested. You don't even have to be there, you can just stay outside the police station and wait for them to get arrested and you can be their hero," solemnly adding, "in your own way."

- Kacey Wong in an interview with Lewis Sanders IV


Hong Kong has historically become a repository of Chinese culture, as mainlanders periodically fled invasion and persecution with their precious art and antiques. The everyday use of traditional Chinese characters has been preserved in Hong Kong, long after the mainland switched to simplified characters. And Cantonese opera, Canto-pop, kung fu and gangster movies, and the manhua (Chinese comics) industry all flourished or were revitalized in Hong Kong - even as Hong Kongers under British rule developed English accents and a taste for European culture. It is this unique amalgam of cultures, nourished by a brand of democracy and a sense of fairness and justice, that Hong Kongers fear is eroding.

Art is not a democratic concept.

- Hong Kong Arts Centre former chairwoman Cissy Pao Watari, as quoted by Vivienne Chow

Few artists in China today defy the authorities as brazenly as Ai Weiwei, though the work of many - like He Yungchang, Yue Minjun, Liang Shaoji, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Xing Danwen, Cao Fei, Zhang Xiaogang, and Guo Jian - contains both overt and coded criticism of the government, with content sometimes grim and unnerving. (Even by Marina Abramović standards, He Yunchang's methodical burning of every stitch of clothing on his back, and his slicing into his naked body to remove one of his own ribs, must count as pushing boundaries.)

But Hong Kong still marches to a different drummer, and the fate of its protest art may be as much a beacon of China's future as Ai Weiwei's struggle with his oppressors.

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Detail from Ai Weiwei's With Wind. Photo: Carla Escoda

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On Alcatraz Island. Photo: Carla Escoda

- Ai Weiwei @Large, sponsored by the FOR-SITE Foundation, continues through April 26th, 2015 at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. -