October 2, 2014

11,166 Attend Opening of @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz


Once home to such notorious inmates as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island welcomed 11,166 visitors for the opening of “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.” The Beijing-based artist and political activist created seven new site-specific pieces to be shown in the former federal penitentiary through April 26, 2015.

Organized by the FOR-SITE Foundation in partnership with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the show builds upon the island’s layered history to explore such wide-ranging issues as freedom of expression, human rights, and our individual responsibility in creating a just society. Although the themes are broad and some of the metaphors obvious (flight is repeatedly used to represent freedom and lack thereof), the installations themselves are far from simplistic. “The amazing thing about these pieces is that you can take them in so many directions,” says Marnie Burke de Guzman, special projects director at the FOR-SITE Foundation. “That is pure Ai Weiwei. He is not didactic about where you’re supposed to end up.”

In the installation With Wind, a Chinese dragon kite stretches through a large room in the New Industries Building, a place once used for prison labor. Handmade by artisans in collaboration with the artist’s studio, the dragon’s brightly-colored body features panels emblazoned with quotes by dissidents, including Chinese human rights activist Wei Jingsheng (“…this thought itself can change the world”) and the artist (“Every one of us is a potential convict”). In the adjacent room, portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden, and 172 other exiles and prisoners of conscience cover the expansive floor. Titled Trace, the intricate mosaic was constructed out of 1.2 million LEGO® bricks by volunteers in San Francisco who had to carefully follow the artist’s 2,300-page instruction manual.

Other works in the exhibit include the sound installation Stay Tuned, a row of 12 prison cells each broadcasting spoken word, poetry, or music by people who have been imprisoned for their beliefs; Illumination, where visitors can stand in a pair of psychiatric observation cells and listen to a recording of Buddhist chants or a traditional Hopi song (Hopi tribesmen were among the first prisoners of conscience held on Alcatraz); and Yours Truly, an interactive piece that invites you to write postcards addressed to prisoners represented in Trace.

For Ai, these themes are not theoretical. In spring 2011, he was accused of tax evasion and detained by the Chinese government for 81 days. Although he was released, he is still forbidden to travel outside of the country.

When Cheryl Haines, executive director of the FOR-SITE Foundation and curator of @Large, visited Ai after his detainment, she asked what she could do to help. His response: “Please make my work more accessible to a broader audience.” With this exhibit, Ai and the FOR-SITE foundation have managed to bring complex, sensitive material to one of the most popular tourist destination’s in the U.S. “Ai is trying to give people a sense of how incarceration is used and help people understand what an issue this is around the world,” says Burke de Guzman. “Freedom of expression is something that has always been contested, and it’s something that people need to fight for. We cannot take for granted these basic values.”

“@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” opened to the public on Saturday, September 27, and runs through April 26, 2015.

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