@LARGE Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz

17 Apr

Seven distinct exhibition areas and an incredibly rich artistic programme comprise the @LARGE Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz exhibition. Addressing political prisoners of conscience worldwide (Beijing-based Ai was once imprisoned for eighteen months in his home country of China and is since forbidden to leave), the exhibition questions state versus self-agency in a series of sites for metaphoric exploration and encounters with individual prisoners of conscience in past and current times.


 With Wind occupies the New Industries Building where former prisoners of the federal penitentiary were granted the privilege of work. A dragon with its body constructed as a segmented kite and other handmade kites of paper, silk, and bamboo fill the space along its central axis, the dragon’s body curving back and forth from the head at the entrance to the tail at the furthest point back. Some thirty countries “with serious records of restricting their citizens’ human rights and civil liberties” are referenced through renderings of birds and flowers (David Spalding, ed., @LARGE Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, San Francisco [2014], p. 55). The craft involved is due to the fabrication by traditional Chinese kite makers from one rural community. The whole is strikingly beautiful. And although the fierce representation of the dragon’s face startles at first glance, the presentation on the whole is ethereal. That a beast of this size could be held within a prison building is incongruous, the artist does not conceive of this as an imprisonment piece, but rather, “represent[ing] not imperial authority, but personal freedom: ‘everybody has this power’.” Individual quotations from prisoners of conscience, including Nelson Mandela and Eric Snowden, adorn the body of this dragon. (See http://www.for-site.org/project/ai-weiwei-alcatraz-with-wind/ [accessed 12/10/2014].)


 Adjoining With Wind in the rear of the building is a second installation called Trace. This portrait gallery of 176 prisoners of conscience from around the world, individuals imprisoned for their beliefs or associations, spreads out across the floor in an assemblage of hand-built LEGO bricks. While some portions were assembled in the artist’s studio, more than 80 volunteers in San Francisco spent about three-and-a-half weeks assembling the whole in situ. One docent explained to me that the artist was inspired to use this material watching his son play with LEGOs. Indeed, the viewer comes away with a feeling of an unique transubstantiation where the State has the power to completely assemble or disassemble the individual. Surprisingly, the political heroes presented here include a number of Americans: Chelsea Manning, Eric Snowden, Martin Luther King, Jr. (arrested 30 times in his life) and John Kiriakou. Kiriakou is someone I had never heard of. He is serving a 30-month prison term for “violating” the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by revealing the name of a CIA officer who had been involved in that agency’s program to hold and interrogate detainees and publicly discussing the use of the suffocation technique known as waterboarding. To learn that this country even carries such a law is offensive to me and to know that Kiriakou would be punished for revealing what he has is equally offensive. Kiriakou is a former CIA officer.


One of the seven installations’ most evocative is Stay Tuned, a series of individual audio installations within cells along the A Block of the Alcatraz Cellhouse, a massive structure originally built in 1912 to house military prisoners. Sitting in individual cells, one can listen to, among others: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s April 4, 1967 speech against the Vietnam War (given at The Riverside Church in New York City); Pussy Riot’s Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away (Punk Prayer), two members of the band serving a two-year sentence following a performance of the song on February 21, 2012; and, Chilean singer/songwriter Victor Jara’s (1932-73) Manifesto, from a musician who was arrested, imprisoned, and murdered following the U.S.-backed military coup of September 12, 1973.

There are many other surprises to this exhibition. I urge you to see it before it closes on April 26th. The exhibition was initiated by Cheryl Haines, founding Executive Director of FOR-SITE Foundation. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations worked closely with Ai in developing the programmatic content for the exhibition. Photographs by the author with permission from FOR-SITE Foundation and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

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