SAN FRANCISCO — It’s a surprisingly clear morning as we exit the ferry to Alcatraz, but the former federal prison still looms like eerie, ancient ruins. A large crowd gathers to hear a tour guide introduce this place that held men captive for thirty years. “The torture was really seeing the boats go by,” the guide says as seagulls caw above our heads, another thing that likely tormented prisoners.
Birds reappear as we enter the press preview of @Large: AiWeiwei on Alcatraz (pronounced “At Large”), an exhibition of seven new installations in which freedom is a central theme. The birds are actually paper kites, suspended mid-flight and bathed in surreal colors. They’re paired with a large dragon kite that winds through the rusted ceiling pipes of the long industrial room that was once used for prison labor.
Ai has left code messages and quotes on select pieces of the dragon’s individual, handcut circles, which form its body. Some may require googling (“Ze Du Out. Disgusting Dictator. — Nito Alves”), while others are obvious (“Every one of us is a potential convict. — Ai Weiwei”). The brightly colored “With Wind” is a stark contrast to the bleak concrete and glass building, and they ease us into a show that gradually embraces its environment as it progresses. Of course, Ai has never stepped foot on this island — he’s still not allowed to leave China — but he seems to understand it, from his own 81-day jail sentence and from the videos, images, and history books shared by curator Cheryl Haines, who carried out his vision.
Ai sent Haines and her team of volunteers a 2,300 page instruction manual for the next piece, “Trace,” 176 portraits of living and dead political prisoners intricately crafted from 1.2 million LEGO bricks. Assembled into six sections and laid out on the floor, some faces and names like Martin Luther King, Jr., Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning are instantly recognizable, but most are foreign and unknown (especially to a US audience). The LEGOs, which could have come off as whimsical, add to the sense of loss, like these images are pixelated, low-res copies of the real people they depict. The portraits, names, brief bios, and their country of imprisonment are indexed in accompanying binders. Whether or not visitors, who gain entry into @Large with their tickets to Alcatraz starting September 27, would rather spend time reading the contents of these binders than learn about Al Capone’s carpeted prison cell remains to be seen, but the option is there.
The third installation in this building, “Refraction,” can only be seen from small, dilapidated windows in the gun gallery, a narrow hallway that was used by the prison guard to watch the working inmates. Constructed of found materials, including reflective panels used for cooking and kitchen objects like tea kettles and pans, it is a five-ton work that doesn’t allow the viewer near. Even in this small group, it’s tough to view the massive metal bird wing locked inside the room, and as a result, it’s the viewer that feels trapped.
The exhibition takes a subtle turn inside the main cellhouse, where “Stay Tuned” in Block A features music, spoken word, and poetry inspired by prison or created by artists who were incarcerated. Inside 12 individual cells, sounds range from the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti’s “Sorrow Tears and Blood,” his denunciation of South African apartheid and Nigerian police brutality, to an powerful political speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. calling for the end of the Vietnam war. Each audio track set at a low enough volume that they can’t be easily heard from the cellblock hallway. These works require the listener think about the artists as prisoners, locked inside a cell as cramped and barren as this one that contains their work. Some of the cells, like one that played Pussy Riot’s “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away (Punk Prayer),” included a pristine 150 lbs. steel stools designed by the artist. Though the wall text clearly explains the origins of each piece, this installation will be challenging for visitors if they’re already on the audio tour that is included in the ticket price.
The same goes for “Illumination,” another sound installation somewhat hidden in two psychiatric observation cells. The adjoining rooms, which are inside the normally closed hospital ward, each contain chanting — one by Buddhist monks in India and the other a traditional song by the Hopi tribe, which undoubtedly refers to the 19 Hopi “hostiles” who were imprisoned here in the late 19th century after they opposed US policies designed to erase Hopi language and culture. There’s a sense of strained communication and suffering in these voices, but the connection to the mentally ill prisoners isn’t clear without first reading the wall text.
Further down the hall of the hospital, where an old operating table and other elements remain, is “Blossom,” a striking symbol of frailty in a brutal place. Within otherwise empty rooms, a clawfoot tub and a few toilets and sinks are filled with small, all-white porcelain flowers. Symbolically, the work evokes Mao’s sinister “let a hundred flowers bloom” campaign that briefly encouraged Chinese citizens to openly express their opinions of the communist regime. Soon after, Mao reversed his promise of openness and branded his critics as “enemies of the state.” He later said that he used the tactic to “enticed the snakes out of their caves.”
Finally, in the middle of the prison’s former dining hall, is “Yours Truly,” which invites people to send pre-addressed postcards to the prisoners portrayed in “Trace.” Each postcard features either the national bird or flower of the country where that specific person is being held, and there are two vintage mail carts to collect them.
While Ai fans will enjoy these new works, in particular “Trace” and “Blossom,” they may demand too much time and patience from the average Alcatraz visitor. The cell house tour takes about two hours to complete and the exhibition needs at least 90 minutes to see each facet properly.
Marnie Burke de Guzman of the FOR-SITE foundation, which funded the $4 million project, said the decision to put @Large in a public space that largely caters to tourists was a deliberate choice by Ai:
“Maybe 80 percent of people coming here won’t even know it’s happening. He [Ai] told Cheryl [Haines], ‘make my work more accessible to a broad audience.’ How do you to meet people where they are with complex, sensitive material? We wanted to do right by the visitor.”
@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz runs daily through April 26, 2015, and tickets are available online.