Renowned Chinese artist explores the boundaries of freedom in a site-specific exhibition on Alcatraz Island.
Cover Photo: Jan Sturmann, courtesy FOR-SITE Foundation
Alcatraz Island, the notorious former federal penitentiary that sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay, has been “home” to Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly, a vivid setting for Hollywood movies and the site of an 18-month occupation by Native Americans in 1969. But this month marks the first time the 22-acre tourist destination will host a major new exhibition by a contemporary artist—and not just any artist.
International art star Ai Weiwei is the most famous modern artist in China, and one well acquainted with incarceration and harassment. A political activist, outspoken advocate for human rights and critic of the government, he was detained by Chinese authorities for 81 days in 2011; his passport was confiscated and he’s currently prohibited from leaving the country.
The exhibition, wryly titled “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz,” is composed of seven multimedia, sculpture and sound installations set in spaces that, with one exception, are usually off limits to the 1.5 million people who visit the island each year. (The prison closed in 1963 and came under the management of the National Park Service in 1972; it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986.)
Surrounded by awesome natural beauty and with the glittering city in view but out of the reach, Alcatraz’s inmates, housed in dark cells within buildings with peeling paint, cracked fixtures and filmy, broken windows, endured a form of psychological torment. Although there’s synergy between the island’s storied history and Ai’s travails in China, the artist is primarily interested in freedom of expression and prisoners of conscience jailed for their beliefs.
“If you’re someone who’s gone through repression, you could connect to it in Alcatraz,” says Chinese-American, Oakland-based painter Hung Liu, who has known Ai since he was in his 20s and who spent four years in a Communist re-education program during the Cultural Revolution. “Seldom can you separate [Ai’s] art from his political critique. His work has a lot to do with the individual versus the system and he’s fearless and very vocal, using the media [and] any chance to speak out.”
Ai’s ongoing conflict with Chinese government officials “has in some ways been a burden but also has given him courage and emphasized what he feels is his responsibility in life,” says Cheryl Haines, founding executive director of the For-Site Foundation, which has spearheaded the creation of site-specific art projects on national park property, including this one, a cooperative venture with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The concept for this new exhibition began to take shape when Haines met with Ai at his Beijing studio in 2012, after he was released. “I asked him if there was anything I could do for him and he said, ‘Yes, you can help bring my work and my ideas to a broader audience,’” she recalls. “I began considering what kind of site would increase exposure beyond the art community. My last project was at Fort Point and from the roof I could clearly see Alcatraz Island. That made me think about his recent detainment, the conversation around human rights and freedom of expression and how this location would be fitting.”
Creating and visualizing the work without ever having seen the space, Ai directed the project every step of the way, from conception to installation, from his Beijing studio. Haines made numerous trips to China to meet with the artist. Digital communication helped immensely. They discussed the exhibition via email and she sent huge files with thousands of photographs, architectural renderings and videos. “He has an incredible innate ability to understand the built environment and he understands space as well as anyone I’ve ever worked with,” says Haines. “We’ve been communicating consistently about every detail of the spaces. It’s hard to communicate the emotive content of being here but in terms of the architectural details, he has a wonderful team of dedicated young people [who worked on the installation] and he’s very talented at working with a variety of spaces. And though challenging, I knew [Ai] was one of the few artists who could take this on successfully.”
The price of a regular ferry ticket to Alcatraz includes access to the exhibition, which is displayed in four separate areas. Three installations are on view in the New Industries Building, where inmates with special privileges were allowed to work in the clothing, dry cleaning and furniture plants or laundry facilities. In an artwork titled “Trace,” a color field of Legos covers the floor, forming a tableau of 176 portraits of prisoners of conscience, incarcerated by 33 nations, including China, Iran and the U.S., that restrict human rights; another, “With Wind,” is composed of a large Chinese dragon kite made up of numerous smaller kites painted with stylized bird and flower motifs. “Refraction,” a particularly metaphoric installation, features a monumental, eight-ton, 15-foot-tall, 30-foot-long bird’s wing of reflective panels (suggesting feathers) used in Tibetan solar ovens. The construction can only be viewed from above along a narrow, window-lined walkway or “gun gallery,” where armed guards once patrolled the inmates below. The symbolic site evokes the sensation of being trapped underground in a dank room, where the wing is confined and earthbound, unable to take flight or flee.
In Cell Block A, each of 12 rusting cells contains a chair, placed so that visitors can sit and listen to recordings of spoken word, poetry and music performed and composed by artists who’ve been imprisoned for their beliefs. The sounds of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 speech against the Vietnam War; the South African anti-apartheid group Robyn Island Singers; and the female Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot, some of whose members were arrested and jailed for their protest/performance in a Russian Orthodox cathedral, intermingle, wafting along the row of iron-barred cells. The eerie ambience invites meditation on the role creativity plays keeping the spirit alive under soul-crushing circumstances.
Alcatraz once had a fully functioning hospital that provided medical care, but the mentally ill were placed in special psychiatric cells. In a pair of these tiled observation rooms, one can hear Buddhist chants recorded at a monastery and the traditional song of the Hopi tribe; some Hopis were jailed on the island in 1895 when Alcatraz was a military prison. In other hospital rooms, bouquets of porcelain flowers emerge from broken toilets, chipped bathtubs and sinks. This profusion of fantastical blooms references China’s 1956 Hundred Flowers campaign, when the government lured artists and intellectuals into the open with a promise of tolerance before instituting a severe crackdown.
The final installation, located in part of the vast dining hall, features a table stacked with postcards addressed to prisoners of conscience. People wishing to send messages of support to those serving sentences for daring to defy their regimes can fill out the cards.
“Alcatraz has deeper meaning than Hollywood’s film presentation of its history; art helps explore the emotional content, human values and past stories of this place,” notes Greg Moore, president and CEO of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. “Ai Weiwei’s installation will reflect a [lesser known] dimension of Alcatraz—an island with its own history of political imprisonment. And as an iconic place of confinement, Ai Weiwei’s art on Alcatraz will explore the meaning of freedom and self-expression, not just on Alcatraz but around the world. “
“If just one person sees this exhibition and it changes their idea of the value of freedom or what their responsibility is in creating a just society,” says Haines, “it will be a great success.”
Through April 26