“I am everywhere and I am nowhere. That’s the beauty of the Internet Age.”
As the ferry left Pier 33 and turned toward Alcatraz, I realized it’d taken me a long time to visit this landmark. In my 35 years of growing up and living in the Bay Area, I’d never set foot on Alcatraz, just as I’ve not visited other must-see attractions in San Francisco. (I’ve been on a cable car once.)
All these years, the prison and the island itself have not lured me on their own, but after seeing pictures of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s @Large installations on my friends’ Instagram feeds, I was curious. Ai Weiwei, who is openly critical of the Chinese government, created these works specifically for Alcatraz — but since he’s not allowed to travel outside of China, he worked on the project from Beijing.
This visit wasn’t just an opportunity to experience a famous prison-turned-US National Park, but also Ai Weiwei’s temporarily constructed space that challenges our perceptions of freedom and imprisonment and recognizes dissidents and activists who, like him, have been detained or deprived of their rights.
@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz spanned various areas of the former federal penitentiary, from the “A” block of prison cells, hospital, and dining hall to the New Industries Building, which is normally inaccessible to visitors. The New Industries Building, housing Ai Weiwei’s prominent artworks “With Wind” and “Trace,” was where working inmates did laundry for military bases and made clothing and accessories for the government.
The “With Wind” installation features a traditional Chinese dragon kite, floating across an empty space. The head of the dragon is the first thing you see when you enter the building: it’s striking, with its majestic body curving around the room, but also jarring, for how sad that this beautiful creature can fly, but remains inside this cold, gray room. Various spheres of the dragon’s body display quotations from those who have been imprisoned or exiled, including Edward Snowden: “…privacy is a function of liberty.”
You notice immediately how appropriate this space is for Ai Weiwei’s art and message: the broken windows, the faded colors and peeling walls, and the vestiges of the prison contrast with his work. The imagery symbolizing flight, from the dragon kite to other works of art, is powerful within this confined space.
The “Trace” installation, in a huge room adjacent to the space with the dragon kite, consists of over 175 Lego portraits of people all over the world who have been jailed or held for expressing their beliefs. “Trace” is visually stunning: I loved the splashes of bright color in this space, and seeing this site — normally closed off to visitors — filled with life. But as I wandered, it became unsettling to think of this place as beautiful. To take pictures of pictures of the imprisoned. To reduce the experience to a hashtag.
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“You know it in the back of your mind that you are constantly being recorded.”
To reach the “Refraction” installation, you descend stairs to the left of the main entrance of the New Industries Building and walk down a narrow corridor along the side of the building, passing empty spaces. In one of these unused rooms rests a massive sculpture that looks at once mechanical yet organic: a structure mimicking the wings of birds, whose “feathers” are made of reflective solar panels used in Tibet. As I peered through a pane of glass, it was difficult to view the sculpture all at once — its shape shifted as I moved from one pane to another, trying to capture the right shot.
While this piece of art wasn’t my favorite, I found it rather sad and powerful: an enormous thing powered by the sun, ready for flight yet unable to break free from this cage. But as I continued to peek through, dissatisfied with every angle I tried, I ultimately wondered: which side of this wall was in confinement?
As I walked through different areas of this exhibition, the windows of the prison’s old buildings became integral to the experience. After viewing “Refraction,” we walked up the stairs to the second floor and back the way we came, down another corridor that overlooked the main rooms housing the grand display of Lego portraits and the colorful dragon kite. Through dirty and chipped panes of glass, I watched other visitors walk around the portraits on the ground.
The view was very different from up here, and it was strange to see faces of prisoners captured in colorful bricks, laid across the floor, while another layer of people observed and walked freely amongst them — they squatted to look closer and take note of prisoners’ names, read about them in binders on podiums scattered about, and took and posted pictures from their phones. I hovered above this scene, surveying it all, like a prison guard roaming the building. As I snapped my own photos, I wondered: who is watching me?
I liked how the space revealed layers of freedom and captivity and privacy and surveillance. I thought the project could have gone further and made even more use of the facility, but then I remembered that Ai Weiwei has never even been to Alcatraz — and envisioned all of this from afar. It’s impressive, and I’m glad to have caught his @Large show on its final day.
While we were on the island, we also listened to the audio tour of Alcatraz, which is pretty well done. This self-guided tour, which is part of your ticket onto the island, takes you through the Cellhouse in a tour narrated by former guards and inmates. Some of Ai Weiwei’s installations were placed here as well. In the “A” block, the “Stay Tuned” sound installation featured the music, spoken word, and poetry of global activists — from Nigerian musician Fela Kuti to Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot — across a dozen prison cells.
Ai Weiwei also transforms the hospital and medical offices with the sounds of Tibetan and Native American chants, as well as found art in the form of porcelain flowers, blooming out of mundane objects like toilets and sinks. (I didn’t get a shot from this “Blossom” installation, but the image below shows what this part of the Cellhouse looks like — eerie and empty.)
The @Large exhibition was a fantastic way to see Alcatraz, and while it’d be great if it ran longer so more people could experience it, I like the ephemerality of it all, and knowing that these works of art can now be set free.
Photographs taken with a Canon G11 and iPhone 5s.