THE BLOG
10/06/2014 12:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"@Large" and Absent, Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

 
With Wind, installation. Photograph by Lori Zimmer. All images courtesy of FOR-SITE Foundation. 
The United States' most storied island prison, Alcatraz, is a fitting home for artist and activist Ai Weiwei's latest project, @Large. Still confined to his home country of China, Ai's presence at the former federal penitentiary is ironic, if not fitting for this monumental exhibition, which is a commentary on freedom of expression and human rights. Ai worked closely with the FOR-SITE Foundation from his studio in Beijing, creating the site-specific installation in a location he could not visit, with Executive Director Cheryl Haines acting as Ai's eyes and ears in San Francisco. Opening last weekend, visitors to the national park can experience @Large with a general admission ticket until April 26, 2015.
Each year more than one million tourists flock to Alcatraz for its torrid history which began as a 19th century military fortress before being converted to a military prison then the country's most notorious federal penitentiary, which operated from 1933 to 1963.  Even with the prison closed, the island's tumultuous history continued when in 1969 Native Americans from San Francisco occupied the island as part of a wave of Native American activism and protest for 19 months. Elements and evidence from each layer of the island's history remain visible, reminding each visitor of the extreme limitations of freedom that the island represented for so many years.
Inspired by the prison's past, and by his own detention by the Chinese authorities in 2011, Ai created a series of installations that encompass sculpture, sound and mixed media, which create a direct dialogue with the sterile prison environment that shows the wear and tear of years of abandonment.The exhibition occupies three buildings on the campus which are normally restricted from the public; the New Industries Building, Cell Block A, and the Hospital, which also houses the prisoner Dining Hall, generally open to the public and taken over by Ai for the exhibition.The experience begins at the ferry dock, where visitors can see the ominous prison looming in the bay. After the ferry ride which gives an idyllic view of the San Francisco skyline, visitors are confronted with the stark isolation of Alcatraz as they are led by a tour guide to the first installation at the New Industries Building.
With Wind, Installation. Photographs by Jan Stürmann.    
Historically, the New Industries Building provided a bit of a respite from prison life, giving prisoners a space to break boredom and make a little money in the prison labor complex. In the cavernous building, visitors are confronted with Ai's first piece, With Wind, a boldly colorful traditional Chinese dragon kite that snakes throughout the room's concrete columns. Each panel of the silk and paper dragon was hand painted by Chinese artisans, another of Ai's attempts to revive a fading cultural art. Aside from traditional patterns and colors, Ai has also quoted a list of proponents of free speech on the panels, such as human rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan and ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The winding kite, meant to catch wind outdoors, has been confined to the crumbling walls of the prison, creating parallels between freedom and restriction.
Trace, installation. Photograph by Jan Stürmann. 
Eighty local San Francisco volunteers were enlisted to help put together Trace, an installation of 176 portraits of international activists imprisoned or exiled because of their beliefs or affiliations, made from thousands of LEGO bricks. Sprawling across the ocean-facing floor of the New Industries Building, the tiny LEGOs make up the intricate faces, many of whom were still incarcerated for their beliefs as of June of 2014. The bright colors of the pixilated portraits are contrasted against the peeling paint of the room, with each literally linked together by the mass of LEGOs, creating a relationship between the individual and the collective.
Refraction, installation.  Photographs by Jan Stürmann.
Refraction occupies the lower level of the building, known as the gun gallery, where armed guards once hovered over prison workers. The massive sculpture stretches like a silver wing across the expansive floor, its feathers made up of silver panels taken from solar cookers used in remote locations in Tibet, an area under the thumb of Chinese rule. The wing stretches out as if attempting flight, its edges constricted by the gallery floor and ceiling. The solar cooker panels' original purpose is also paid tribute to, with errant tea kettles dotting the edges of the wings. Rather than interacting with the sculpture up close, visitors are confined to the narrow corridor above the piece viewing it from the vantage point from which guards once watched working prisoners.
 
Stay Tuned, installation. Photograph by Jan Stürmann
Stay Tuned, installation. Photograph by Lori Zimmer
Along Cell Block A, Ai asks visitors to enter the cells that once housed the country's most notorious convicts for Stay Tuned. Within each cell is a replication of a traditional Chinese stool, an icon familiar in Ai's work, that in this piece invites visitors to sit. Each of the twelve cells offers a sound experience, hosting a different recording of an expression of protest from around the world. Songs by Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, Tibetan singer Lolo and Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlu are among the eclectic recordings visitors can experience in the prison. The powerful recordings are also available to be enjoyed online on the FOR-SITE website.
Illumination, installation. Photograph by Jan Stürmann.
Ai's sound experience continues in the prison mental hospital with Illumination, a piece of Tibetan and Native American chanting which plays in a pair of confined tiled chambers. The piece highlights the ceremonial chants of two populations that have resisted cultural and political repression, set within a venue where mentally ill prisoners were confined, observed and deprived of rights. The long standing peaceful protests of Tibetan monks join the more site-specific efforts of the Hopi tribe, who in the 19th Century were the first people imprisoned at Alcatraz and for the crime of refusing to send their children to American assimilation boarding schools during Colonization.
Blossom, installation. Photograph by Jan Stürmann.
Continuing through the Hospital are several large ward cells, with sinks, toilets and bath tubs out in the open. Each of these porcelain fixtures are filled to the brim with tiny porcelain flowers, offering a tribute of comfort to the prisoner patients that lived in the chambers over the years. The piece, called Blossom, also echoes China's Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, a brief window during which the Communist Party of China encouraged open freedom of expression of political opinion, which was harshly followed by a governmental backlash.
Yours Truly, installation. Photograph by Jan Stürmann.
@Large comes to a close by offering visitors a chance to engage in activism themselves. Yours Truly inhabits the prison Dining Hall, transforming the room into a library-meets-post office. The rows of wooden tables are met with wooden shelves with hold pre-printed postcards. Each post card bears the name of an imprisoned activist around the world, whose portraits are featured in LEGO in the Trace installation. Visitors are invited to write messages to these prisoners on the postcards, which will be mailed by the @Large staff to the intended recipients.
Ai's inability to visit the site of @Large can be read as a conceptual art work itself, the irony of which strengthens his message in ways that his installations cannot. Read in the context of the isolated island of Alcatraz, his works have more power than in the white walls of a museum, which in turn empower the political activists and voices which he represents throughout the exhibition.