Pondering Freedom on Alcatraz: Ai Weiwei at Large

“I am everywhere and I am nowhere. That’s the beauty of the Internet Age.”

Ai Weiwei

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.)

An Alcatraz sign, resting in the rear of the New Industries Building at the @Large exhibition.
An Alcatraz sign, resting in the rear of the New Industries Building at the @Large exhibition.

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.

The dragon head of a massive kite, encountered right at the main entrance of the "With Wind" installation.
The dragon head of a massive kite, viewed at the main entrance of the “With Wind” installation in the New Industries Building.

@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.”

In "With Wind," Ai Weiwei places a Chinese dragon kite within a nondescript, empty space.
In “With Wind,” Ai Weiwei places a long, colorful Chinese dragon kite within a nondescript space.

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.

A sink on the wall in the New Industries Building.
A sink on the wall in the New Industries Building.
A view through broken glass into the "Trace" exhibit of Lego portraits, in the New Industries Building.
A view through broken glass into the “Trace” installation of Lego portraits.
A corner of the "With Wind" installation, with winged bird-like creature, broken glass, and my husband Nick.
A corner of the “With Wind” installation, with winged bird-like kite, broken glass, and my husband.

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.

Another view of the "Trace" installation. Above, you can see an upper-level corridor from where visitors can observe this space.
Another view of the “Trace” installation. Above, you can see an upper-level corridor from where visitors can observe this space.
A view of the "Trace" installation, which displays portraits made of Lego bricks of people imprisoned all over the world. As noted in the informational binders, some of the activists have since been released.
A view of the “Trace” installation, which displays portraits made of Lego bricks of people imprisoned all over the world. As noted in the informational binders, some of the activists have since been released.

* * *

“You know it in the back of your mind that you are constantly being recorded.”

Ai Weiwei

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?

In "Refraction," a huge sculpture with wings is confined to an empty lower floor of the New Industries Building. Visitors can only view it through old, broken panes of glass.
In “Refraction,” a huge sculpture with wings is confined to an empty lower floor of the New Industries Building. Visitors view it through old, broken panes of glass.

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.

A set of windows in the New Industries Building, bringing in light.
A set of windows in the New Industries Building, bringing in light.

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.

A staircase in the A Block of the Cellhouse on Alcatraz.
A staircase in the “A” block of the Cellhouse on Alcatraz.

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.)

A room in the Cellhouse (with no artwork from the exhibition).
A room in the Cellhouse (with no artwork from the exhibition).

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.

A stylized kite in the corner of the "With Wind" installation.
A bird-shaped kite in the “With Wind” installation.

Photographs taken with a Canon G11 and iPhone 5s.


  1. Such detailing in the photographs! Even rust looks so beautiful! Amazing post!


  2. Cheri…you were right…you take care…The artist in Chicago.


  3. What a fascinating place and venue for an art show. I am familiar with some of Ai Weiwei’s work and it definitely seems fitting that he would use this space for his art. It is impressive that he envisioned all of it from afar.


  4. It looks fantastic, especially the dragons and kites, as I suspected. Thanks for the link. 🙂
    Last year we had Ai Weiwei’s project “To be found” in Warsaw too – in the Sculpture Park. Quite a traveller, despite being stuck in China.


  5. Wow ! What a great article and pictures. The contrast between Alcatraz rooms and the colourful pieces of art is thrilling and make a great impression. Bravo !


  6. I love your opening quote–really speaks to that intangibility factor of social media/Internetdom.


  7. I understand that you hadn’t set foot on the island until now. It is a landmark of the Bay but an unsettling one. I haven’t visited either. By the way I didn’t climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower until I took my American-born children to my homeland!
    Alcatraz is an appropriate setting for the works of Ai Weiwei. You triggered my interest with your detailed post and gorgeous photos, so a visit is now due.
    As I saw the photos of the vestiges of the jail I couldn’t stop thinking of the great Middle Grade novel Al Capone Does my Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko, also set on the island while the infamous Al Capone was imprisoned there.
    Thank you for highlighting the work of an important contemporary artist/activist who’s not afraid to speak up. The installation looks stunning and full of hope despite the seriousness of the topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. There is a documentary film about Ai Wei Wei which is entitled Ai Wei Wei: The Fake Case. The movie reminds me back about how hard himself struggling as an agent of critique towards the Chinese Government.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Daphne Rowlands

    Fantastic detail as ever Cheri, really brought the exhibition to life. It also brought back memories of my own visit to Alcatraz, but how he has transformed it and made people think about imprisonment in a different way. What an amazing achievement to have masterminded it from China and how sad that he can’t actually see it. Visually I liked the dragon the best but it provided a huge contrast to the drab monochrome background.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Cheri! Those were wonderful! I have been to Alcatraz a couple of times.. .but never when there was an art exhibit! Love your photos! I have been dabbling a little bit myself lately so I really appreciate what it takes to make these look so cool. I think my passion is more in abstract. Like some of yours. What a treat for your first time on The Rock! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Anonymous

    Your presentation of the exhibit is the next best thing to having attended. Thank you for sharing your observations, comments and photographs. I felt the spirit of the exhibit through your eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Fantastic post! I love your photos and commentary and much of what I think has already been said, but thank you for sharing this. There’s a line we can walk between the hashtag reduction world and sharing for greater awareness and compassion – well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. What a fascinating combination!
    … and super photographs and text from yourselves add to the process.
    Remember being in the “pen” as a UK tourist: tremendous pressure of being part of a machine, pressed down and controlled had me going.
    But, as per usual, listening to the audio tour I wandered off, found myself alone (in the former “exercise yard”) … which had my wife and daughter quite worried.
    “Now where is he?”
    There was a former guard there who explained that the real truth behind the system was that the authorities reduced problems in other U.S. jails by bringing the percentage of criminals that caused tension to “the island”.
    Interesting thought.
    Thanks for posting this one.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. old Japanese proverb
    running through my head
    the nail that sticks up
    gets hammered down

    Liked by 2 people

  15. “To reduce the experience to a hashtag.” Isn’t that the sad pathetic truth of the modern world. So many are fighting for freedom and we are spending hours a day figuring out how to best package and box ourselves in, and having every experience seen through the lens of how it will later be conveyed through social media.
    Thanks for the tour, it’s amazing that there are so many things to see right in front of us and we never take the time to go and visit them. I lived in Seattle for 19 years and never went up the space needle. I lived in the Bay area for 16 more and never went to Alcatraz, though I did look at it through those binoculars on Fisherman’s Wharf (if that’s possible and I’m not getting my memories mixed up…) But the time that I went to Fisherman’s Wharf I was still living in Seattle so maybe that doesn’t count as breaking the mold and actually going to a tourist attraction where you’re living. Even now, I live a 2 minute walk from the Arabian Sea and you would think that I would at least go there for the peace of mind of staring at the ocean, but even that I’ve only done a couple of times.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Thanks for sharing your experience of this exhibition, along with the photos. I wanted to attend but couldn’t fit it into my schedule. Your post gives me a good feel for the exhibit.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. The works of Ai Weiwei and Alcatraz, what a potent combination and you do it justice. The photo you have of “A staircase in the “A” block of the Cellhouse on Alcatraz” is a perfect compliment to the feeling I get from the works of Ai Weiwei ~ sadness of restrictions and ruin. What a great way to see both Alcatraz and Ai Weiwei’s work, adds to the feeling each would probably give off if viewed separate. Enjoyed your writing and insight on the layout of this exhibit ~ it is amazing that he has never seen Alcatraz and still made it work (which probably just adds to the ambiance of the exhibit). You ask the great question near the end, about the very thing worth thinking about “layers of freedom and captivity and privacy and surveillance.”

    Liked by 4 people

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