Escape Plans: Ai Weiwei Transforms Alcatraz Into a Middle Finger to Oppressive Governments

During its most active years as a federal prison, Alcatraz was a place that prisoners feared. They feared other prisoners and their makeshift knives. They feared guards who resorted to violence as a punishment tool. And they feared the prison's isolation — the tiny cells, the cold corridors, and the years when officials forbade all inmates from uttering a single word. Some inmates went mad. The tourists who flock to Alcatraz see these conditions as ancient history, repackaged in audio recordings and public displays that are both informative and highly entertaining.

But these conditions aren't ancient history, says Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist who's been given unprecedented access to Alcatraz and has turned the island's rusting cells and meeting halls into a human-rights museum. Right now, shouts the artwork in “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz,” prisoners around the world are being subjected to Alcatraz-like conditions just for voicing political ideas that their governments deemed offensive. The scores of faces that Ai has assembled from Lego pieces — put on the cement floor of the same building where Alcatraz prisoners once did laundry under the supervision of gun-toting guards — are the faces of people who are currently behind bars, were once behind bars, or might soon be behind bars. These prisoners of conscience include names that are easily recognizable, including Nelson Mandela and Edward Snowden, and names that should be more recognizable, like Andrei Barabanov, an artist incarcerated in Russia for protesting Vladamir Putin's policies; Lolo, a Tibetan singer who Chinese authorities arrested last year for recording an album of songs favoring Tibetan independence; and Agnes Uwimana Nkusi, a Rwandan journalist jailed by her government for four years after publishing articles critical of Rwandan president Paul Kagame.

More than 170 faces stare out from a floor almost as big as a football field. Like the AIDS Memorial Quilt that has humanized a pandemic for almost 30 years, Ai's Lego faces are a jolting reminder of lives torn asunder.

He could have put his own face there. In 2011, Chinese police jailed Ai for almost three months as they investigated him for “suspicion of economic crimes” — actions taken after Ai, against the Chinese government's wishes, published the names of thousands of people killed in a major 2008 earthquake in China's southwest province. The published names were based on a series of investigations that Ai undertook with other volunteers. Now, because he has publicly criticized China's government for years, authorities have confiscated his passport so he can't leave the country.

To orchestrate “@Large,” Ai worked from his Beijing studio with the FOR-SITE Foundation, a San Francisco organization that arranged for the Alcatraz exhibit's seven installations. Ai, who lived in the United States from 1981 to 1993 after coming here to study art at New York's Parsons School of Design, has never visited Alcatraz, though after researching its history — and discovering it was the site of Native American protests in the 1960s and early 1970s — was even more inspired to create his series of new artworks, which range from the overtly political to the beautifully symbolic.

In a large hall that connects to the one housing the Lego faces, Ai has placed an enormous Chinese dragon — the kind that is usually seen leading Chinese New Year parades amid loud drumming and cheering. In this hall, though, there is silence. And the dragon's tail is made of small kites inscribed with messages about freedom, as in the quote — taken from an extensive interview Edward Snowden did with a London paper earlier this year from Russia — “privacy is a function of liberty.” Surrounding the dragon, hanging in the air, are winged kites whose intricate patterns are modeled after birds and plant life. The kites' eyes look down at visitors as if in a state of limbo. They have the means to fly but cannot. They show signs of life but cannot move.

“The purpose of art is the fight for freedom,” Ai writes in the accompanying exhibit catalog, where he says he wants visitors to “@Large” to be “conscious of artists' efforts to protect freedom of speech and expression.”

This consciousness-raising is repeated throughout “@Large,” where the biggest work is a metal wing that weighs more than 10,000 pounds. The wing's feathers are made of panels from Tibet that were originally solar cookers. For six decades, despite international condemnation, China has claimed Tibet as its territory, and has resorted to violence and population control to enforce its claims. Visitors to Alcatraz's New Industries Building have to view the metal wing from the building's former gun gallery — a vantage point from above that emphasizes distance and dissonance. The gallery's small windows, from which Alcatraz guards could fire their weapons, are cracked and frayed from time.

Visitors to Alcatraz aren't normally let in to the New Industries Building, which now contains Ai's metal wing, dragon and kites, and Lego faces. Nor are visitors ordinarily allowed into Alcatraz's former hospital wing and psychiatric observation rooms, where Ai's porcelain flower sculptures now occupy the rooms' sinks, toilets, and bathtubs. Ai has also produced audio of Tibetan Buddhist and Native American chants that resonate from two chambers there. The hospital wing and psychiatric observation rooms are above the cells that housed inmates. In a row of cell blocks, he has arranged audio recordings that — like the Tibetan Buddhist and Native American chants — transform Alcatraz's once-isolating spaces into places of protest, remembrance, and worship. Fela Kuti, the great Nigerian Afrobeat saxophonist who was repeatedly jailed by his government, is among the voices that sing out from the cells. Others include the Sudanese poet Mahjoub Sharif; the Russian band Pussy Riot; Martin Luther King Jr.; Lolo from Tibet; and Victor Jara, the Chilean singer and poet who the Chilean government tortured and killed after the 1973 U.S.-backed coup that deposed Salvador Allende. In Alcatraz's dining hall, visitors can send post cards to political prisoners featured in “@Large” who are still alive.

The idea for the project originated with Cheryl Haines, the owner of San Francisco's Haines Gallery and the FOR-SITE Foundation's founding executive director, who is a longtime champion of Ai's art. The National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy quickly supported the idea. Ai is arguably the most important political artist working today. With him, imprisonment and human rights aren't academic subjects. Chinese police have physically abused Ai in detention. China's government demolished his Shanghai studio. And yet every action China takes against Ai contributes to his international reputation. “@Large,” which opened Sept. 27, brings Ai's work to an audience far beyond museums and galleries. Ai's Alcatraz installations reframe the island's past in profound and moving ways. It's as if Alcatraz had always been waiting for him. Waiting for him to tell a bigger story that connects the island to global themes. Waiting for him to turn Alcatraz into what it could be all along.

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