The world famous Chinese artist-activist never set foot on the island, but his work now fills its storied halls.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 )
For a comprehensive look into the work and life of Ai Weiwei, click this link to Artsy.net.
Exhibit on view through 4.26.15.