The old federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay is one of the city’s top tourist attractions. Beginning Saturday, it’s also the site of an installation by one of China’s most famous dissident artists, Ai Weiwei.
The work, “@Large” explores themes of freedom and confinement. Finding freedom under restriction is a worthy challenge, Ai says. Confined to China himself, the artist had to pull it all off without setting foot in the U.S.
“For an artist to not be able to see the venue, and afterwards to not be able to interact with the audience — if I had to imagine the toughest restriction about an exhibition, that would be it,” Ai says.
That wasn’t the only hurdle the exhibit had to clear. Alcatraz is still federal land, and to host the art of one of China’s most vocal critics, the project had to get clearance from the U.S. State Department. They also were told that none of the site’s historic walls could be harmed.
Ai said the limitations added extra meaning to the show.
“We cannot touch anything, add anything; it’s a hanging installation,” he says. “Like prisoners themselves, who are only there for a period of time.”
No doubt, Ai’s limitations also will bring more attention to this show, which runs through April 26, and to his work in general — visibility that could be a big help for Ai, says Chad Coerver, chief content officer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“The more recognized he is — even though he’s incarcerated at home — the safer he is from eventually being shut off completely or disappeared again, as he was in 2011,” Coerver says. “So it’s a very dicey gamble that he’s playing, because we know that the West’s attention doesn’t always guarantee political freedom in China. But it seems to be the path that he’s chosen.”
Viewers travel by ferry to the island, where signs lead them to a building marked “Penitentiary Laundry.” Just beyond the door, the head of a dragon kite marks the beginning of the $3.5 million, mostly privately funded art exhibit.
Exhibit curator Cheryl Haines says this first work, called With Wind, is “the pièce de résistance.” The dragon’s body, made from bamboo and rainbow-colored fabrics, snakes around columns covered in peeling, institutional green paint.
“It’s suspended above the viewer — it will be flying, it will be free — but it’s also restricted within the building, so there’s this really interesting conversation between control and freedom,” she says.
Haines dreamed up the idea of bringing Ai Weiwei’s art to Alcatraz three years ago, when the artist had just been released from an 81-day detention by Chinese authorities on charges of tax evasion. Chinese authorities later confiscated his passport, so Ai Weiwei had to envision Alcatraz using blueprints and films, and relied on a team of volunteers here in the U.S. to install the work.
The second part of the exhibit is a sound installation, in which the voices of people imprisoned for expressing their views are piped into a bleak row of prison cells.
In the first cell, music by the dissident Russian punk group Pussy Riot plays from decaying air vents. In a cell used for psychiatric evaluations at the prison, Hopi Indian chants play. Nineteen members of the Hopi tribe were jailed at Alcatraz in 1895 for opposing the forced education of their children in government boarding schools.
The fight to stay visible permeates Trace, the next part of the exhibit, where a football-field-sized floor is covered with more than 175 portraits of so-called “prisoners of conscience” made from colorful plastic Legos. Many of the faces are likely unknown, but controversial figures like NSA contractor Edward Snowden are also there.
Celebrated Oakland painter Hung Liu is close friends with Ai. Liu grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution under Mao Tse-Tung, and like Ai, China’s politics and culture infuse her work. She is wary of political art becoming too didactic.
“When you have a strong political agenda, a strong message, you have to be careful if you want to use art form,” the painter says.
Liu says she plans to take a serious look at Ai’s Alcatraz work, and hopes others will get past his superstar status and do the same.
“Ai Weiwei’s super-famous. Some people call him God Ai — Ai shen,” Liu says. “I think it’s little too far.”
It’s important for people to continue to think critically about Ai’s work, Liu says — after all, people tried to make Mao a god, too.