Tag Archives: alcatraz island

@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.

The Unexpected

15 Apr

I am not always happy about the unexpected, but sometimes what I do not anticipate comes to my rescue. Wednesday, March 4th, was a dismal day. I cannot even remember the reasons for my dark mood as the day bore on. But by the time I was ready to relax for the evening I headed over to Cafe Trieste, near my room in North Beach. I enjoy their inexpensive house cabernet sauvignon and that single glass of wine can mellow out any mood I may bring with me to their space. (Their menu prices went up across the board recently, so they no longer serve the cheapest glass in the neighborhood.) They also have a juke box with interesting and varied fare, from vintage rock’n’roll and near contemporary operatic offerings to engaging Italian pop.


Sometimes a group of poets sit together and recite their verse to each other. They are a fixture at the cafe and have probably been sharing their fussy lines since they first found each other. I try to sit away from the sound of their droning tonality, but the cafe this particular evening was given over to a most extraordinary revel.


The first Wednesday evening of the month is host to the Ned Boynton Surfer Roma Band. You can also listen to Boynton play a lilting guitar on the juke box. The Surfa Roma Band is a changing ensemble from month to month. Of the eight members I listened to with great pleasure, there were musicians playing mandolin, accordian, guitar, bass, bongos, congas, and cymbals.

What was utterly charming, though, was the impromptu pairings of dancers, people who knew this event and each other. Their delight was a delicious extravagance. I was warm and beaming by the time the musicians disbanded.




One week later I was expecting one of my clients to fulfill our volunteer garden outing on Alcatraz Island. There is a long history of gardening on the Island. In its earliest European American phase, Alcatraz Island was the site of the West Coast’s first United States military defense point. This was during the Civil War. Military wives established gardens during the second half of the 19th century. I have heard tell of one hundred-year-old rose plants still existing within the gardens. Certainly garden cover can be seen on every side of the Island and is shared by gulls, egrets, geese, ducks, pelicans, and other birds. We discovered a dusky brown newt recently.


My client and I, just getting to know the terrain, join a large group of volunteers, some of whom have devoted their weekly visits to this rocky eden for many years. We both enjoy the activities and setting. Having heard a weather report on rain, though, the day before, he chose not to garden.

Thus I was free to not work on my birthday. Having thought about my sixtieth over the years, I had promised myself to do something big. But, alas, without money, I had to content myself with errands left undone because of a busy work schedule. Then mid-day my friend Nancy called to ask if I would accompany her to see Hugh Masekela in concert that evening; the ticket holder had dropped out. Yes! I had not heard his music in years. This was an extraordinary invitation. The concert was held at University of California, Berkeley Zellerbach Hall, a gorgeous space.

Vusi Mahlasela, a renowned singer/guitarist, shared the stage with Masekela and a band of musicians formed for their 20 Years of Freedom concert tour. Masekela played the trumpet, flugelhorn, various percussive instruments, told stories, sang, and, with Mahlasela, broke into impromptu knee-bending dance.


Perhaps the longest piece, Stimela or Coal Train, was the most riveting, with Masekela speaking the beginning lyrics as a poem: “There is a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi / there is a train that comes from Zamibia and Zimbabwe / There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique, / From Lesotho, from Botswana, From Zwaziland, / From all the hinterland of Southern and Central Africa. / This train carries young and old, African men / Who are conscripted to come and work on contract / In the golden mineral mines of Johannesburg / And its surrounding metropolis, sixteen hours or more a day / For almost no pay.” Masekela added sounds of the trains, the workers, the inside of the mines, creating a presence of scene that was palpable. One could feel the very air of movement within those mines. By the end an incredible thing happened: the audience stood up, practically springing from their seats. But this was not a moment when an audience stands to clap. This was a moment when no one knew what had just happened, to their senses, their reasoning, their place in the world.

Masekela is 75 or 76 years old today. He is an exuberant man, as powerful as ten men. Nancy and Hugh showed me the way forward from sixty. Something big had happened, indeed.


As a final note, I recommend a small, unassuming space in North Beach for live music. Melt, at 700 Columbus, just off of Washington Square Park, offers delectable items such as fondue and Welsh rarebit, salads and wine, but also hosts jazz almost nightly. This is one of the few remaining places for jazz in the city, which the owner, a musician himself, acknowledged to me one evening. And perhaps, if you visit, you will have a chance to hear a very talented pianist named Jibril Alvarez, who organizes sessions there.