This site-specific exhibition by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei explores the nature of freedom, the implications of incarceration, and creative expression as an act of liberty and conscience. The work was intentionally designed for installation on San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island, which has been a Civil War fortress, a famed federal prison, the site of Native American resistance, and now a national park.
Ai himself was a political prisoner at the time, forbidden by the Chinese government to leave the country. As a result, he designed the work without ever setting foot on Alcatraz and oversaw installation of the exhibit remotely from China. In this sense, both the artwork itself and its process of creation are explorations of confinement and liberty, the cost of (and right to) individual and creative freedom, and the role of art in political protest. “Freedom for me is not a fixed condition but a constant struggle.”
The first piece you encountered upon entering the New Industries Building was “With Wind” - Ai Weiwei’s colorful, traditional Chinese dragon kite, symbolizing power. The long and winding body of the dragon is made up of smaller kites that contain the words of activists who have been imprisoned or exiled. When making the kite, Weiwei collaborates with Chinese artisans in an effort to revive this dwindling art form. The work was all done inside the New Industries Building, which used to be used for prison labor, evoking contradictions of freedom and restriction, creativity and repression.
One of my favorite pieces in @Large was “Trace.” This massive installation used Legos to depict the faces of more than 170 people who have been imprisoned or exiled for their beliefs, many of whom were still incarcerated at the time of the exhibition in 2014. The work was built partly in Ai’s studio in China and partly at Alcatraz. “Assembling a multitude of small parts into a vast and complex whole, the work may bring to mind the relationship between the individual and the collective.”
In “Blossom,” Ai Weiwei created intricate ceramic flowers to fill the toilets, sinks, and bathtubs once used by prisoners in the Alcatraz hospital. The piece transforms utilitarian fixtures into works of art, drawing on natural imagery as well as traditional Chinese arts. The use of flowers is both a reference to the sending flowers to sick patients as a sign of comfort as well as China’s Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956, when the government briefly loosened its tolerance for freedom of expression.
Ai Weiwei’s choice to locate @Large on Alcatraz not only contextualized his pieces about freedom and imprisonment in a very real way, but also gave visitors a chance to explore this national landmark and learn about its history as both a prison and site of political resistance.
From November 20, 1969 - June 11, 1971 Alcatraz Island was occupied by 89 Native Americans and supporters who were demanding the island be returned to Native people. Alcatraz penitentiary closed in 1963, and the island was declared surplus federal property in 1964. According to the 1858 Treaty of Fort Laramie, all retired and abandoned federal land was to be returned to the Native people who previously occupied it.
The Alcatraz Occupation lasted for nineteen months and was forcibly ended by the U.S. government. The land is still federally controlled, now as a National Park and recently the site of artist Ai Weiwei’s @Large exhibit.
When I went to see @Large, I had visited the prison before, but it was a completely different experience standing in these cells while listening to the voices and words of political prisoners from around he world, imagining the ideas and movements that grew out of rooms like these, considering both the nature of freedom and the cost of fighting for it...or not fighting for it.