Ai Weiwei does Alcatraz
“If you disobey the rules of society, they send you to prison; if you disobey the rules of the prison, they send you to us…. From this day on, your world will be everything that happens in this building.” (The prison warden in Escape from Alcatraz) The big house doesn’t get any bigger than Alcatraz. Although the U.S. federal prison situated on an island in the San Francisco Bay has been closed since 1963, its legend as the hardest of hard places has only grown. And even if ‘the Rock’ is a tourist attraction managed by the National Park Service, the name remains synonymous with no-hope incarceration. Over the prison’s 100-year active history, no one ever escaped, at least as far as we know. It’s just the sort of place artist Ai Weiwei would find attractive.
Over the last decade, Ai Weiwei’s status has shifted from that of international art star to public figure of conscience. His imprisonment and subsequent house arrest in China – and his publicising of those events on video and in exhibitions around the world – have given him an importance and visibility that few artists ever achieve. So, when Cheryl Haines, director of the FOR-SITE Foundation, which organises public art installations in the Bay Area, met with Ai in Beijing in 2011 after his release from prison, the subject of Alcatraz came up almost of its own accord. Haines had worked with Ai on a previous installation in the Presidio district of San Francisco and had been thinking about Alcatraz for a long time. “No proposals for the site had ever been accepted,” she recalls, “but it seemed to me that Ai Weiwei would understand how to activate the space.”
@Large: Ai Wiewei on Alcatraz represents a collaboration between the artist, the Foundation, the U.S. National Park Service, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, with research assistance from Amnesty International. Ai’s primary goal was to engage a broader audience for his art and his political message, and what he needed was a vehicle for dramatizing the themes of freedom and restriction. Given the high level of incarceration in the United States, almost any prison would have been appropriate, but Alcatraz turned out to be a better fit than he could have imagined. In fact, Ai had never heard of the prison. Inaugurated as a military jail in 1857, its first civilian prisoners were not hardened criminals like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, who would arrive later, but prisoners of conscience. They were members of the Hopi Tribe from Arizona, whose crime was to resist the forced education of their children and the land allotment programmes. This has prompted one of Ai’s most moving installations, Illumination; a sound piece staged in the prison’s psychiatric observation cells. The stark, tiled cells resonate with traditional Hopi singing and the chants of Buddhist monks. The piece underscores the reality that the prison’s history is studded with political inmates, from IWW party members in the 1920s to Communists in the 1950s.
Ai Weiwei’s attempt to link situations of oppression is global as well as historical. He has turned Alcatraz into a political intervention that implicates both the United States and China, as well dozens of other countries. On the floor of another section of the prison, the New Industries Building, one of the few places where privileged prisoners found relief from the isolation of the cellblocks, Ai has installed Trace, 175 portraits made from Lego blocks, of people imprisoned or exiled for their political beliefs, actions, or affiliations. Chinese poet Zhu Yufu is there, and Tibetan singer Lolo, but so is Edward Snowden, the latest U.S. intelligence bête noir, as well as others from Africa, the Arab world, and elsewhere. “The installation is intended to let them know they are not forgotten”, says Haines.
The message is delivered even more palpably through an interactive installation, Yours Truly, in the prison’s dining hall. Ai has written about how important it was for him to receive physical tokens of support from people during his ‘tax’ prosecution, and in this work visitors are encouraged to sit at long wooden tables and write postcards addressed to some of the prisoners pictured in Trace. The postcards carry images of the one thing that prisoners don’t have access to: the natural world, in the form of birds and flower blossoms. Ai reprises the theme of the freedom of absent nature in a five-ton bird’s wing, called Refraction, made of reflective panels from Tibetan solar stoves, sinks, toilets, and bathtubs filled with exquisitely crafted porcelain flowers, called Blossom, and a gigantic dragon kite crafted by Chinese artisans and installed in the New Industries Building, called With Wind.
The exhibition on Alcatraz explains the proliferation of Ai Weiwei exhibitions in the last few years, with major presentations in Berlin, Washington D.C., and Brooklyn, to name only a few locations. As poetic as Ai’s work can be, the urgency of his message trumps everything. Alcatraz is his largest soapbox so far. “My voice is not for me”, he has written. “Every time I make a sentence, I think of how many generations had a voice that no one could hear.” ‹