In 2014, while the Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei was under house arrest in Beijing, he was also creating work for an ambitious exhibition on Alcatraz Island. Ai, one of the most acclaimed living artists, has said the resulting show, “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz,” was “about freedom, ironically.”
The site- and exhibition-specific pieces in @Large addressed Alcatraz’s complicated history as a Native American cultural site, a former military fortress and prison, and a popular tourist destination overseen by the National Park Service.
Cheryl Haines, the curator of @Large, says that when she went to Ai’s studio in Beijing to propose the idea of doing a site-specific exhibition at Alcatraz it was “very appealing” to the artist and dissident, because it was “a foray outside the contemporary art world.”
“It wasn’t a gallery or museum, this was a place where many of the people that encountered the exhibition learned about not only his story and his practice but the plight of prisoners of conscience around the world for the very first time,” Haines said. “And that’s incredibly powerful.”
Haines is the executive director of the non-profit FOR-SITE Foundation, which organized @Large. Her first documentary film, Yours Truly, which explores the @Large exhibition and its reverberating impacts, premiered virtually on Wednesday.
The exhibition at Alcatraz, which ran from September of 2014 to April of 2015, drew nearly a million people from around the world. Haines says it’s the most complex project she has ever been involved with, especially because the artist wasn’t able to visit and assess the site before it was opened to the public.
Despite these complications, she says Ai was the perfect artist for the show.
“I can’t think of any better artist working today that could address the need for basic human rights and freedom of expression,” Haines says.
Ai’s experiences and personal history have largely influenced his artwork, and @Large is no exception.
Shortly after Ai was born, in the late 1950s, his family was exiled to a labor camp in northwest China where they lived for nearly two decades after Ai’s father, the Chinese poet Ai Qing, was labeled as an enemy of the Cultural Revolution.
Beginning in the late 2000s, Ai gained international recognition for his artwork, much of which was critical of the Chinese government. In 2009, his blog was shut down, he was beaten by police and he was later placed on house arrest in 2010 while his art studio was destroyed.
In 2011, he was arrested on charges of tax evasion while at the Beijing airport and subsequently detained for three months, during which time he said he was constantly surveilled and frequently interrogated.
Although Ai was released without any charges after 81 days, the Chinese government seized his passport, leaving the artist under modified house arrest in Beijing from April of 2011 until July of 2015, when his passport was finally returned. This meant that Ai was unable to see the @Large exhibition at Alcatraz in person.
The artwork created for @Large included “With Wind,” a contemporary artistic version of the traditional Chinese dragon kite. The piece was formed using individual kites that featured quotes from formerly imprisoned or exiled activists like Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden, and the artist himself. The dragon, which typically symbolizes imperial power, was reimagined to represent personal freedom.
Whereas “With Wind” used mythical symbolism to represent both freedom as a concept and the restrictions imposed on certain freedoms in actuality, the installation “Trace,” one of the most iconic pieces from @Large, used individual LEGO bricks to depict the portraits of 176 individuals from 33 countries who have been or are currently being imprisoned or exiled because of their beliefs or affiliations.
The individuals depicted in “Trace” are considered by both Ai and a number of human rights groups to be prisoners of conscience and advocates for freedom of expression. There are six individuals from the U.S. depicted, including assassinated civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., former CIA officer John Kiriakou who was imprisoned for revealing information about the CIA’s use of torture on detainees and Chelsea Manning, who leaked nearly 750,000 military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks.
The portraits were assembled in both Ai’s Beijing studio and with help from over 80 volunteers in San Francisco. Each portrait is composed of thousands of LEGO pieces.
Also included in @Large was the interactive “Yours Truly” installation, which lends its title to Haines’ documentary film. “Yours Truly” allowed visitors the opportunity to write postcards to some of the individuals depicted in “Trace.”
“Yours Truly” resulted in a total of 90,000 postcards sent to a number of different prisoners of conscience, including Kiriakou, Manning and Ahmed Maher, a co-founder of Egypt’s “April 6 Youth Movement” which led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak’s government.
While Haines’ Yours Truly documentary film initially focuses on @Large the exhibition, it later shifts its focus to the postcards, featuring interviews with some of the individuals who received the notes.
“John Kariakou, Chelsea Manning and Ahmed Maher […] all expressed how grateful they were to be remembered and how much it meant to them to read individual messages of support and empathy and encouragement,” Haines said.
FOR-SITE also received a number of Facebook messages and emails from other prisoners of conscience or their family members saying “the words of encouragement did, in some cases, get through, and it was giving them a sense of hope that they had not been forgotten,” Haines said.
The response to the cards came as a complete surprise, as @Large organizers were told the messages would never be received by the individuals they were addressed to. Haines said she and others were repeatedly advised that the postcards would be stopped by guards and that even if they did get through, it was unlikely these individuals would be able to respond.
Haines said she never planned to make this documentary film — in fact, some of the footage was only gathered because the National Park Service required organizers to provide an “equivalent experience” for visitors unable to access the site.
She says she is pleased with how the film turned out, especially because the film talks about Ai’s life, which she feels “is so important in terms of understanding his work.” Ai himself is an accomplished film director and producer. His 2017 documentary film “Human Flow” about the global refugee crisis won a number of awards.
Although the @Large exhibition at the heart of the film occurred several years ago, Haines says the subject matter is still very much relevant.
“Regardless of your form of activism, regardless how you speak out and identify the need to help others, it doesn’t take much,” Haines says. “Whether it’s protesting, whether it’s writing a postcard and reaching out with empathy to another human being that has been unjustly incarcerated, we really have to take this as a personal mission — that each and every one of us can do something.”
Tickets to stream Yours Truly are now available here.
Hannah Holzer is an intern covering news and culture.