@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island / by Ellen Ziegler

The day after Codex, I took the ferry to Alcatraz Island to see @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Shattering. Stunning. Installations in several parts of the former prison, itself a wrenching experience to walk through, even years after it was closed and made into a state park. The installation is only there through April 26. Just get a plane ticket. Don't miss it.

Ai Weiwei, himself a detainee forbidden to leave China, directed this massive installation about prisoners of conscience worldwide from his home.  

From the website:

“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.”
— Ai Weiwei

"The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is internationally renowned for work that defies the distinction between art and activism. In this exhibition of new works created specifically for Alcatraz, Ai responds to the island’s layered legacy as a 19th-century military fortress, a notorious federal penitentiary, a site of Native American heritage and protest, and now one of America’s most visited national parks. Revealing new perspectives on Alcatraz, the exhibition raises questions about freedom of expression and human rights that resonate far beyond this particular place."

Photos ©2015 Ellen Ziegler

Portraits of prisoners of conscience made of Lego blocks.

Each pixel a single Lego block. Portrait of journalist Salijon Abdurakhmanov.

"Ai’s sculpture, sound, and mixed-media installations occupy four locations in the former prison: the New Industries Building; a group of cells in A Block; the Hospital; and the Dining Hall. With the exception of the Dining Hall, these areas are usually restricted to the public, but all are open throughout the run of the exhibition. @Large turns Alcatraz into a space for dialogue about how we define liberty and justice, individual rights and personal responsibility. In artworks that balance political impact with aesthetic grace, the exhibition directly and imaginatively addresses the situation of people around the world who have been deprived of their freedom for speaking out about their beliefs — people like Ai himself."

Faran Hesami, Baha'i citizen of Iran.

The installation BLOSSOM.

"In this work, Ai Weiwei quietly transforms the utilitarian fixtures in several hospital ward cells and medical offices into delicate porcelain bouquets. The artist has designed intricately detailed encrustations of ceramic flowers to fill the sinks, toilets, and tubs that were once used by hospitalized prisoners."

"A vocal critic of his nation’s government, Ai was secretly detained by Chinese authorities for 81 days in 2011, and is still not permitted to travel outside China. As a result, the artist was unable to visit Alcatraz during the planning of this exhibition; he has developed the artwork at his studio in Beijing, with the help of the FOR-SITE Foundation. Ai has embraced the ironies of creating site-specific art for a place he couldn’t see, and of celebrating free expression while working under severe constraints. Conflict and struggle have only galvanized the artist’s commitment to art as an act of conscience. With this project, he aims to expand our understanding of 'the purpose of art, which is the fight for freedom.'”

Natural forms allude to a stark human reality: many are icons for nations with records of restricting their citizens’ human rights and civil liberties.

Human rights defender Le Quoc Quan.

"Privacy is a function of liberty", Edward Snowdon.

"Privacy is a function of liberty", Edward Snowdon.

Head of the dragon that displays the words of dissidents.

Head of the dragon that displays the words of dissidents.

"Ai’s studio collaborated with Chinese artisans to produce the handmade kites, reviving a craft that has a diminishing presence in China. By confining the kites inside a building once used for prison labor, the artist suggests powerful contradictions between freedom and restriction, creativity and repression, cultural pride and national shame. He also offers a poetic response to the layered nature of Alcatraz as a former penitentiary that is now an important bird habitat and a site of thriving gardens."

The sound installation Stay Tuned is heard through the small heating vent under the sink in each cell. 

The sound installation Stay Tuned is heard through the small heating vent under the sink in each cell. 

"Inside each cell, visitors are invited to sit and listen to spoken words, poetry, and music by people who have been detained for the creative expression of their beliefs, as well as works made under conditions of incarceration. Each cell features a different recording. The diverse selection includes the Tibetan singer Lolo, who has called for his people’s independence from China; the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, opponents of Vladimir Putin’s government; and the Robben Island Singers, activists imprisoned during South Africa’s apartheid era.

"Ai Weiwei has described the texture of the individual voice as a particularly potent vehicle for human connection and communication. Heard inside a cell, speech and singing create a powerful contrast to the isolation and enforced silence of imprisonment."

Read and see more at http://www.for-site.org/project/ai-weiwei-alcatraz/

Photo of Ai Weiwei from project website.

Photo of Ai Weiwei from project website.

Ai Weiwei is a Beijing-based artist and activist whose work encompasses sculpture, installation, photography, film, architecture, curation, and social criticism. His art has been featured in major solo exhibitions including Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, UK, 2014; Evidence at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 2014; and Ai Weiwei: According to What?, which was organized by the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, in 2009, and traveled to North American venues in 2013–14. Ai collaborated with architects Herzog & de Meuron on the “bird’s nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent from the Human Rights Foundation in 2012.