Alcatraz (Part 2): Off the Wall


(Pic #1) Close-up of weathered Alcatraz inmate dining hall wall.

Time and decay reveal unintentional works of art.

Fresh from a visit to one of the most intriguing exhibits I’ve ever attended anywhere (See TLR post: Ai Weiwei) — I had to share my obsession with the textured, storied walls of our country’s most famous, historical federal penitentiary: The Rock, in San Francisco Bay.

The 6-month exhibition allows visitors to walk through inmate workrooms and guards’ gun galleries heretofore off limits. The halls and walls are eerie and decrepit, and you get a sense that decades of dark history could quickly be exposed with CSI on the untold number of layers of chipped and crusty paint. (Pics #1 -#9). Between the coats of mint green and institutional gray, you catch shades of peach, rose, and rust. The infirmary entrance sports three shades of what could be described as Martha Stewart Mediterranean teal (Pic #9) with scratches of powdery pink — a totally counterintuitive color palette for the world’s creepiest “pen.”

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(Pic #2) Dning hall.


(Pic #3) Infirmary bathroom.


(Pic #4) Alcatraz inmate “hall of industry”

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(Pic #5) Defunct “hall of industry” commodes.


(Pic #6) Jail cell wall; cell Block B

(Pic #7) Infirmary entrance

(Pic #7) Infirmary entrance

(Pic #8) Hospital room.

(Pic #8) Hospital room.

(Pic #9) Infirmary bath

(Pic #9) Infirmary bath

Factoids from “The Rock:”

Where did Alcatraz get its name?  The name Alcatraz comes from the Spanish explorer Don Juan Manuel de Ayala, the first European known to navigate San Francisco Bay, in 1775. He called it “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” which means “the island of the pelicans.”

Why did Alcatraz close? According to Smithsonian Magazine, in a word: extravagance. “The cost of housing a prisoner on Alcatraz, where all supplies – including potable water – arrived by boat, was more than three times higher than at other federal prisons.” In 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy announced Alcatraz shut down the historic facility for good.

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(Pic #10) Curious door frame next to warden’s quarters.


(Pic #11) Exterior vent, prison guard quarters

(Pic #12) Dining hall ; check out the imaginary form of mother and child

(Pic #12) Dining hall; check out the imaginary form of mother and child


(Pic #13) Operating table, inmate infirmary.



Ai Weiwei Breaks Into Alcatraz


(Pic #1) Flying hand-painted silk sculpture by Ai Weiwei, installed where prisoners on “good behavior” found opportunity to work on Alcatraz.

The world famous Chinese artist-activist never set foot on the island, but his work now fills its storied halls.


(Pic #2) Jail cell, bottom row.

Conceptual artist Ai Weiwei knows a little something about incarceration. In 2011, he was secretly detained “like a kidnapping” he said, when government agents intercepted him at the airport on his way to Hong Kong from Beijing. He recalls their pulling a black sheath over his head and shoving him into a car. He was ultimately released a few months later, but minus his passport.

Well, geography has not silenced Ai’s voice from being heard 6000 miles away. In fact, it could be argued that his message (exploring freedom of expression, confinement, and what it means to be a modern day political prisoner who fears his cause may have been forgotten) appears to be reaching record numbers of people. The exhibit, “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” has seen more than half a million visitors to date. Fans and tourists alike are making the trek hourly to “The Rock” on SRO shuttle boats.

According to Smithsonian magazine, When Ai was released from prison, Cheryl Haines, executive director of the For-Site Foundation (a San Francisco-based arts group specializing in large-scale works showcasing specific places) visited Ai in Beijing. Ai said he wanted “to address what happens when people lose the ability to communicate freely.” What if I brought you a prison?” she asked Ai. He nodded.

Ai Weiwei has covered a massive factory-like work room floor with portraits of famous and not-so-famous dissidents from dozens of countries. (Pics #8 , #9, #10, #11). All made from Lego blocks (sent over from China) assembled by hundreds of volunteers. Those portraits, and Ai’s mixed-media works are installed in the New Industries Building (where “privileged” inmates washed Army linens and fashioned rubber mats), the psychiatric ward of the prison hospital, (where Al Capone was treated for syphilis and dementia – Pic #2A), the 3-tiered A and B Block cells (known for their tool-proof steel bars – Pic #14), and the dining hall. Most of these locations are generally off-limits to the touring public.


(Pic #2A) Artist installation in Alcatraz hospital ward – where Ai filled baths and sinks with white porcelain flowers.

In the largest structure, Ai’s hand-painted rice paper, silk and bamboo “kites” fly overhead. (Pics #1,#3,#4, #5,#6,#7) They showcase designs based on the national birds or flowers of the prisoners’ respective countries —“fluttering likes scraps of hope.”


(Pic #2B)  Alcatraz Infirmary / psych ward

Ai spent three years constructing the infamous island prison in his mind at his studio in northern Beijing. He pored over books and photographs of what used to be America’s foremost maximum-security penitentiary. Smithsonian says Ai “formed his own mental map” of the 5-foot by 9-foot cells, the austere prison hospital, primitive psych ward, as well as the inmates’ dreams of escape.


(Pic # ) Detail, Painted Silk kite

The artist’s main ambition: to ensure that today’s prisoners of conscience around the world are remembered. Ai compiled a list of more than 175 of them and where they are being held in 30 different countries. “We looked at who is still in jail,” says Ai, “but may be already forgotten.” (Pics #8, #9)

Among the names are Sergei Udaltsov, a 37-year-old Russian critic of President Vladimir Putin, now under house arrest in Moscow; Ahmed Maher, a 34-year-old Egyptian activist sentenced to three years in prison in 2013 for protesting against the “limited” public demonstrations; Nguyen Van Hai, a 60-year-old Vietnamese blogger imprisoned for “disseminating anti-state information.”

You’ll need a full day to cover the entire show – allowing time to sit in a jail cell where chilling classical music is piped in, courtesy the artist.  (Pic #14). One such composition was written by Czech composer Pavel Haas, who was sent to a concentration camp in 1941; in 1944 he was transported to Auschwitz and killed. While he was imprisoned he wrote at least eight compositions, including the piece for string orchestra (now playing in Cell Block B.)  First performed by prisoners in Terezín, it is probably Haas’s best-known work today. Link to Audio here.


(Pic#10A) Pre-designed post cards addressed to dissidents; exhibit guests may write personal messages to them

The way cool interactive element to this tribute, is that visitors get to write personal messages on postcards to any of the 175 dissidents Ai references. He created art cards already addressed and stamped. 50,000 cards have been sent so far. (Pic #10A )

Ai Weiwei ‘s work is on view through April 26, 2015.


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(Pic #12) Alcatraz hospital room where artist Ai Weiwei has filled sinks and commodes with miniature white porcelain flowers.


(Pic #13) Alcatraz infirmary



(Pic #14) A moment to listen and reflect, as Ai Weiwei creates cell block listening rooms.



(Pic #15) Massive winged metal sculpture by Ai Weiwei in Alcatraz basement.


(Pic #16) Alcatraz building facade at port.


(Pic #17) Iconic prison staircase at port.




Brace Yourself: The Love Affair Between Art and Tech

It’s an advertisement hawking Adobe software products. It’s exciting and scary at the same time: I know that it’s a futuristic vision of graphic applications, but I also know in about 18 months just might be considered “old school.”

Still, there is a surprising intuitiveness in these design elements: basically no lag time between the artist’s thought and the action on screen. It’s almost like finger-painting in kindergarten. What we slop is what we get.

The exciting truth to emerge out of this partnership is: Artists – known for thinking in radically different ways – are now helping shape advances in technology, and it appears Adobe is responding to their needs. Because of this symbiotic collaboration, head-exploding innovation is practically guaranteed. And perhaps most important: better tech serves our creative spirit.

Related link: Creative pros like Macs, but Adobe cozies up with Microsoft