More Than Just a Prison


Co-authored by Geneva Griswold

@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz (September 27, 2014 – April 26, 2015 on Alcatraz Island)

Alcatraz, an island in San Francisco Bay on which stands a former federal penitentiary, has been a favorite tourist destination since 1973. In that year, it became a National Park. The National Park Service tour focuses on the inmates’ experience, yet remnants of the island’s multiple occupations can’t (and shouldn’t) be missed. Each of the stories of Alcatraz is preserved on the island through architectural or botanical hints. Remnants are visible of the United States’s first West Coast fort and lighthouse; red spray paint still remains from the 1969-71 occupation by the Indians of All Tribes; and bird colonies signal Alcatraz’s current service as a natural reserve. Ai Weiwei’s @Large responds to all of these layers. While Ai’s work is conceptually strong, the variety of histories and moods that the audience confronts while visiting Alcatraz @Large requires a focused, if not determined, viewer.

Entrance to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Photo by the author for Dilettante Army.

Entrance to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Photo by the author for Dilettante Army.

To tour the exhibition, you must begin by standing in a ferry line on a busy pier in San Francisco. The visual signage combinations create a disjointed experience; a privately owned ferry, a national park, a sponsoring arts organization (the FOR-SITE Foundation), and a famous artist name all compete for space. @Large is widely advertised in the park service literature. As a result, there are two distinct audiences journeying to the island together: tourists seeking the Inescapable Experience, and an art audience with mixed expectations. The latter are lured by the hype around Ai’s name and curious about the results of a long-distance collaboration between artist and site. Ai, denied travel privileges by the Chinese government, is not free to leave his home country. It is a somber experience to visit a prison in order to see an exhibit by an artist whose own freedom is curtailed.

While riding the ferry, passengers hear a soundtrack complete with fog horns, bird calls, and a narrator recounting bits of Alcatraz history. The narrator’s script ends with a pithy line–“Alcatraz: it’s more than just a prison.” In fact, Alcatraz has become a (rather expensive) tourist destination where you ride a lovely ferry while having a coffee or a beer. Once you are off the ferry and past the welcoming park rangers, you’re free to wander the scenic island and to enter buildings as you choose. The dramatic headset audio recording, as told by four guards and four prisoners, guides you through the penitentiary.

The audio tour tells a select piece of Alcatraz history, mythologizing gritty stories about the prisoners and several notable escape attempts. While the events were real, the tour glorifies a specific narrative of the space, casting it far from its recent reality and into something worthy of reflection (or a movie script).  Some of the prison cells have faux artifacts and fake prisoner bodies, adding to the feeling that visitors are touring a staged set. (In fact, the 1979 movie Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood, tells one potentially successful escape from the prison in 1962.)

The audio tour and @Large only intersect minimally. Ai created seven new pieces for @Large, and they are dispersed among three different buildings on the island. Areas of the island and prison that are normally off-limits were made accessible to the public for Ai’s exhibit. There, broken windows and peeling paint give the spaces containing his works a haunting feeling.

With Wind Photo by the author for Dilettante Army

Ai Weiwei, With Wind, 2014. Photo by the author for Dilettante Army

With Wind, the first piece, includes a hand-painted Chinese dragon kite suspended from the ceiling of the New Industries building. The dragon greets you at the door as if it is making its exit, bared teeth made of white paper stretched taut over wood dowels. The head, hung at eye level, is lit by the full sunlight of the open door. Light filters through the fragile structure, and you can see the glue and string that bind the form together.  You can imagine the hands that built it at work, just as you might imagine the hands of day-laboring prisoners sewing or stringing nets. The audio tour of the prison cell blocks later makes clear that this was numbing work. The dragon’s long body is composed of individual kites each painted with floral motifs in which quotes from civil rights leaders can be made out. It winds its way around structural columns and stretches past additional kites, these with printed flora and bird graphics that are emblematic of countries who currently restrict human rights. The pain embodied by this building has been overwritten by an airy, awesome one; indeed, Ai intends this dragon to represent freedom. Personal freedom. As if you might skip across the wide-open floor into the next room.

Ai Weiwei, Trace, 2014. Installation view. Photo by the author for Dilettante Army.

Ai Weiwei, Trace, 2014. Installation view. Photo by the author for Dilettante Army.

Here, Trace lies before you. Three expansive carpets, each made of a single layer of Legos, surround the structural columns. The Legos form pixellated images of 176 faces, each reduced to a few colors, with the individuals’ names their likeness. All of these people are currently imprisoned or exiled (although some have been very recently released), and they hail from countries across the globe. The floor portraits of these political prisoners depicted in children’s blocks are jarring, and they prompt a string of contradictions as to Ai’s intent.  By positioning the portraits on the floor, the viewer is forced to look down upon–or even tread over–these individuals. Three-ring binders lay open at several points in the room and contain small pictures of each person represented; their names, countries, and causes are stated in brief.  Their biographies inspire reverence, but the format of a brief reference book leaves you wanting more. These individuals return to us at the end of our Alcatraz journey, so it is important that we meet them fully here.

Ai Weiwei, Refraction, 2014. Installation view. Photo by the author for Dilettante Army.

Ai Weiwei, Refraction, 2014. Installation view. Photo by the author for Dilettante Army.

Refraction is placed on the lower floor, but it is viewed from the glassed-in gun gallery above. Guards would oversee the prisoners’ work from these high narrow channels. At present, all is still and silent, the cool blue room awash in light. A large, metal wing–designed after a bird’s–sits awkwardly between the concrete pillars, trapped between walls, floor, and ceiling. You might even miss Refraction, if you didn’t know what you are looking for (or at). The ‘feathers’ are actually Tibetan solar cookers–highly reflective silver panels used to harvest heat for cooking. Although Refraction is sculpturally interesting, it is difficult to view from the cramped gun gallery, and therefore difficult to appreciate beyond the poetic metaphor of trapped freedom. More engaging than the wing, perhaps, is the cracked glass through which you view it.  The iron muntin bars of the gun gallery windows have grown so thick with corrosion that the glass panes have shattered. You can imagine the exploding sound filling the bare, hard room, and sense the building’s continual evolution.

Ai Weiwei, Blossom, 2014. Photo by the author for Dilettante Army.

Ai Weiwei, Blossom, 2014. Photo by the author for Dilettante Army.

The next pieces of @Large share and intersect with spaces used on Alcatraz’s audio tour. Blossom is found on the hospital floor of the prison. Ancient, rusting, deteriorating sinks, toilets, and tubs are filled with delicate ceramic flowers. White, reflective, and precarious, these flowers grow in places where water once ran, reminding us that people lived in these spaces. These flowers seem like fragile ghosts of the island’s wildflowers.  They were each hand-crafted by the same porcelain studio that made Ai’s sunflower seeds for the Tate Modern in 2010. If you’re lucky to be alone in the room, the guard might let you hold one of the flowers and view the underside where fingerprints have pushed each petal into the next before firing.

Two sound pieces come next. Stay Tuned is installed within a series of 12 prison cells. Visitors are invited to sit on a solitary metal stool and listen to the voices of a multitude of people from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Pussy Riot, all of whom were detained for expressing their beliefs. Hearing the voices of political activists from within single, solitary prison cells is a  powerful concept, yet the audio is difficult to hear over the sounds of so many other visitors.

Illumination, another sound piece, is located within two small tiled cells. One cell is filled with the sounds of Hopi dancers, the other with Tibetan Buddhist chanting. These soundtracks reflect the histories of Alcatraz and China, forming parallel narratives of imprisonment. Arguably, this is the most accessible piece of @Large simply because it entirely envelopes the beholder in sound and space.  It is easy to be transported by these freedom songs while in a confined space.

Ai Wewei, Yours Truly, 2014 (detail). Photo by the author for Dilettante Army.

Ai Wewei, Yours Truly, 2014. Detail. Photo by the author for Dilettante Army.

On the way out of the exhibit, viewers find Yours Truly in the prison dining hall. Confusingly, this piece shares space with viewers on the non-related Alcatraz audio tour who are listening to the adventure story of a prisoner who steals a kitchen knife. Ignoring the tour, @Large visitors can select from a variety of postcards, each pre-addressed to a political prisoner portrayed in Trace. Each postcard portrays a bird or flower from the country where its recipient is imprisoned.  Visitors are encouraged to write notes of support to the political prisoners. This is a fine concluding gesture, but it is perhaps too cathartic for visitors, many of whom do not appear to have understood that their messages were intended to be read. By allowing us to feel we have done something to help, Yours Truly clears a visitor’s conscience of the heavy content in the rest of @Large.

A variety of articles have argued that Ai’s work at Alcatraz fell short because he never visited the island in person (due to his own imprisonment).1  This does not make @Large unsuccessful. Ai’s work responds to the island’s various political histories–not just the contemporary tourist attraction–and frighteningly mirrors our reality of a public who may not be aware of, or care about, the injustices occurring in our own time and spaces. @Large successfully draws parallels between the multiple places and persons of political imprisonment. There is no better place to do so than from an island that sits between one of the most liberal cities in the world, and China, whose cargo ships pass through the same waters.

1. Kenneth Baker, SF Gate; Christopher Knight, LA Times; Jori Finkel, New York Times; Jed Perl, New Republic