When I learned that my French cousin was going to be visiting over the holidays, I wasn’t sure she would want to go to Alcatraz, and, if she did, I wasn’t sure I would join her. Even though I love Alcatraz, it is now the site of my first date with the Math Greek so I don’t want it to become commonplace for me. But then I remembered that the Ai Weiwei exhibit was there and thought that could be interesting. I am not a huge fan of contemporary art, but I had seen his Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern while in London and I remember being pleasantly surprised by its impact. @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz was even more impressive. If you are in the Bay Area in the next few months, don’t miss it.
@Large is a series of installations located in two different buildings on the island. The three largest works—With Wind, Trace, Refraction—are located in the New Industries Building, which once served as the prison workhouse and is not generally open to the public. (I asked an attendant stationed there if they planned to keep the building open once the exhibition is finished and she didn’t think so.) The four remaining pieces are located in the main building of the prison—in Cell Block A, the hospital wing, and the dining hall.
The installations of @Large explore human rights and the concept of freedom, especially freedom of expression, and much of their effectiveness derives from the Alcatraz location, which, in addition to serving as a federal prison from the 1920s to the 1960s and housing the likes of Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly, was also the site of a major protest of the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s after the prison’s closing.
We started our visit at the New Industries Building, which is reached by following the main road around to the Marin side of the island. This is on your way up to the prison, but if you have never visited Alcatraz before you may want to start with the excellent audio tour first.
Upon entering the New Industries Building, you are immediately confronted by With Wind, the magnificent dragon kite pictured above, which winds its way around the first room and seems to want to burst forth out of the door.
In the next room is the expansive Trace, a series of six carpets depicting more than 175 prisoners of conscience in portraits made entirely of Legos. I didn’t know most of them, but there are helpful notebooks on the side that give a brief history of each person, why they were imprisoned, and their current status. Famous faces include Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and Edward Snowden. This piece really reminded me of Sunflower Seeds, which was not a carpet of seeds at all, but rather thousands of pieces of hand-painted porcelain.
Lastly, viewable only from the gun gallery where guards used to keep watch over the working prisoners, is Refraction, a monumental sculpture of a bird’s wing made entirely from the parts of Tibetan solar cookstoves. One looks down on the “trapped” sculpture from above. As such, it was hard to capture in a photo but you can see it here.
The thought that is put into each piece and its placement is evident throughout the exhibition. The fact that it was undertaken long-distance, since Ai Weiwei’s travel is currently restricted by Chinese authorities, is truly remarkable. The art is completely integrated into its surroundings, calling to mind the experience of touring the Chinati Foundation museum in Marfa, Texas.
Cell Block A houses one of two audio installations. Here, in what is left of the former military prison (also generally closed to the public), are a dozen cells each containing one metal stool and a looped recording of either music, poetry, or a speech. Stay Tuned features the creative work of prisoners of conscience or those detained for creative expression, from Fela Kuti to Martin Luther King to Pussy Riot. My favorite cells were “Sorrow, Tears, and Blood” by Fela Kuti, “A Study for Strings” by Pavel Haas (written in 1943 in the concentration camp at Terezín before Haas was transported to Auschwitz and killed), and “What a System (What a Crime)”—a song by the Robben Island Singers set to the tune of “Oh My Darling, Clementine.” You can hear full recordings of the selections here.
Yours Truly, located in the prison Dining Hall, invites visitors to write to the people portrayed in Trace using pre-addressed postcards depicting either the official bird or flower of the prisoner’s country of origin. The postcard images were designed by manipulating photographs of the bird or flower in question so that the photo looks like a painting. The effect is quite beautiful and I saw more than one clueless visitor inquire about buying them.
Lastly, upstairs from the Dining Hall, is the hospital wing. (Again, this is an area usually closed to the public, so it may be of interest to the casual prison visitor in and of itself.) There are two installations here: Illumination, an audio piece using Tibetan and Hopi ceremonial chanting and located in the isolation cells reserved for mental patients, and Blossom, which fills the plumbing fixtures of the medical ward—bathtubs, sinks, and toilets—with white porcelain flowers. The exhibit signage didn’t say, but I imagine these flowers are related to both With Flowers and #FlowersforFreedom on Twitter. These pieces were less effective to me, but that may just be because I saw them at the end of an already long visit.
In sum, this exhibition is outstanding and, even if you have already visited Alcatraz before, I highly encourage you to plan a visit. @Large will be on view through April 26 of this year. The exhibition and ferry to the island are included in the regular Alcatraz ticket price.
My own portrait of “flowers for freedom”: