Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Prisoners of conscience become art

Fine Arts

The dragon kite, part of With Wind, one of seven site-specific installations in @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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It sounds like an unbeatable concept: an exhibition marrying the work of Ai Weiwei, the world-famous Chinese political dissident artist, and Alcatraz, the notorious federal "ghost" prison with spectacular vistas of San Francisco Bay. But the results, alas, are nebulous and underwhelming. The premise has certainly proven irresistible for journalists, and an avalanche of publicity preceded the opening last weekend of the wryly titled @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. But the wealth of media attention is both blessing and curse, raising expectations for seven site-specific installations that deal with freedom of expression and prisoners of conscience. The visual and audio works are located in four areas of the prison, most of which are usually off-limits to the 5,000 tourists who trundle onto the island each day; the price of a regular ferry ticket ($30) includes access to the exhibition.

Ai is best-known as part of the design team that developed the Bird's Nest Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and for a 2010 installation in which millions of ceramic sunflower seeds carpeted a floor of the Tate Modern in London. His natural constituency is the art community, but the attraction for him of this particular venture, spearheaded by Cheryl Haines and the For-Site Foundation, was its ability to reach a wider audience. How tourists, drawn by the infamy of former inmates like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly, will respond to serious issues around the imprisonment of individuals for their beliefs is anyone's guess.

The Chelsea Manning portrait, part of Trace, one of seven site-specific installations in @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Photo: Rick Gerharter

What's inarguable is that atmosphere is so thick at Alcatraz you can practically inhale it, one of the reasons the site has been a magnet for Hollywood directors. The dank, oppressive buildings with peeling paint, cruddy dark cells, cracked sinks and toilets and broken, dirty windows are surrounded by awesome natural beauty and a sparkling metropolis in the near-distance, which were as remote as the moon to the forsaken "worst of the worst" once incarcerated there. If only those walls could talk, the stories they'd tell, but @Large doesn't especially capitalize on the creepy resonance of the place, and with one stunning exception, the artworks, executed in a range of mediums, are overpowered by the potent ambience.

For Ai, the political is personal, and his consuming interest in freedom and his intimate knowledge of repression come from first-hand experience. His father, a renowned poet, was exiled during Mao's Cultural Revolution, and then there are his own ongoing conflicts with the Chinese authorities. An activist, outspoken advocate for human rights and a vocal critic of his government, he was detained on questionable charges for 81 days in 2011, and watched over 24 hours a day by guards. His passport was confiscated; he's under constant surveillance, and is currently prohibited from leaving the country. Though Ai never saw Alcatraz in person, he was able to compensate but not completely overcome this obstacle through copious digital correspondence with Haines; a cadre of assistants and local volunteers helped with the enormous task of installation.

Three installations are in the New Industries Building, where inmates on good behavior were allowed to work at various jobs. Upon entering, you're met by the colorful head of a Chinese dragon kite made of silk and bamboo with a long tail of circular kites that wind through the space. Some are emblazoned with quotes from Ai, Edward Snowden and other figures who have defied their governments.

Covering the floor of another large room, Trace consists of over 1.2 million Legos that form 176 portraits of political exiles and prisoners of conscience from over 30 nations. (Six are from the U.S., and not surprisingly, 38 are from China.) Martin Luther King, Jr., Mandela, Snowden and Chelsea Manning are included, but most of the names will be unfamiliar, suggesting that silencing dissenters by imprisoning them may be an effective strategy for authoritarian regimes. The work is intended to convey the global extent of repression, but the impact is blunted by being unable to get an overview of the entire floor from above.

Refraction, a spectacular, eight-ton, 15-foot-tall, 30-foot-long bird's wing composed of reflective panels (suggesting feathers) used in Tibetan solar ovens, looks like the fossil of a giant pterodactyl trapped in a dilapidated airplane hangar, unable to take flight or escape, a powerful metaphor for confinement that can be felt and understood. The stationary construction can only be seen through shattered glass window-panes that line a narrow second-floor walkway or "gun gallery," where guards used to patrol the prisoners below.

In Cell Block A, each of a dozen rusting claustrophobic cells contains a stool enabling visitors to sit and listen to recordings of spoken word, poetry and music performed and composed by artists imprisoned for their beliefs. Audio from a string orchestral piece by Jewish Czech composer Pavel Haas, who was sent to Terezin and eventually perished at Auschwitz; and "Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away" (Punk Prayer) by Pussy Riot, among others, waft along a tier of decrepit iron bars, though the noise of tourists intrudes on the eerie spell.

Alcatraz had a functioning hospital that provided medical care, but mentally ill inmates landed in psychiatric cells like the pair of dreary tiled observation rooms where recorded Buddhist chants and the traditional song of the Hopi tribe now emanate (Illumination ). Elsewhere, piles of small, intricately designed white porcelain flowers (Blossom) fill broken toilets, chipped bathtubs and sinks to the brim, but the meaning is vague. Neither of these installations takes advantage or acknowledges the hideous practice by totalitarian regimes of punishing political dissidents by incarcerating them in mental institutions. The final installation, located in a section of the Dining Hall, has shelves stocked with postcards that are addressed to political prisoners and can be filled out by visitors. One is left wishing there were more to it, something that could be said of the entire exhibition.


Through April 26.


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