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Entrance to Ai Weiwei, “With Wind” (2014) (all photos by Evan Livingston)

SAN FRANCISCO — Stepping into a dingy and suffocatingly small cell, you’re immersed in an intense soundscape of horns and the chanting of Tibetan monks. It’s overwhelming, and as the noise builds and bounces around the cold cement room, you wonder if this is akin to the feeling of being trapped inside the space for days on end.

This is the former isolation room for mentally ill inmates at Alcatraz, and the piece you’re experiencing is “Illumination” (2014), one of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s first ever sound installations. It’s one of the most memorable works in his new show, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, produced by the For-Site Foundation. With seven site-specific installations at the former federal prison, Ai captures the hypocrisy, injustice, and tragedy that incarceration all too often embodies.

The artist comes by the subject of imprisonment earnestly; in 2011 he was detained by the Chinese government and held without charge for 81 days. Although out of confinement for over three years now, Ai’s personal freedoms remain constricted: he’s been unable to leave China ever since (his passport has been revoked), faces ongoing and pervasive surveillance, and has been battling dubious tax evasion charges.

Ai Weiwei, “With Wind” (2014)

While the international outcry that his detainment spurred was an exception to the rule, Ai’s experiences in China are not unique. Political prisoners around the world continue to suffer, and as the US incarcerates more people per capita than any other country, we need a debate about the dehumanization and efficacy of imprisonment more urgently than ever. Activist and scholar Angela Davis once said, “Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo — obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other.” Resisting this dehumanization has been a source of strength and power for many political prisoners throughout history, some of whom are prominently featured in @Large.

Ai Weiwei, “Trace” (2014)

Trace” (2014) is a huge floor installation featuring portraits of political prisoners from around the world — from high-profile individuals like Nelson Mandela to lesser-known political activists in Belarus — awkwardly constructed with Legos. Seeing the faces of so many men and women who’ve been imprisoned for their beliefs is staggering, but the connection between content and medium is weak. While the giant field of portraits recalls earlier installations by Ai, including masterpieces like “Straight” (2008–12) and “Sunflower Seeds” (2010), the tacky plastic Legos fall flat.

One of 12 cells used for Ai Weiwei’s sound installation “Stay Tuned” (2014) (click to enlarge)

For “Stay Tuned,” (2014), Ai has filled long-empty Alcatraz cells with the sounds of political resistance that arose from imprisonment. Within 12 cells, each measuring roughly nine feet long by five feet wide, the artist has placed single steel stools; they invite the viewer to sit and listen to the voices, music, and poetry of political prisoners throughout history. One hears sounds from the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr, Russian punk activists Pussy Riot, and the Nigerian godfather of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti.

“Stay Tuned” is a testament to these fierce activists — people who have found beauty and power in hopeless moments, who’ve refused to treat their fellow humans like animals, even as they themselves were being treated like beasts. Their sounds (some of which were familiar to me, some not) took on a wholly new form when I was sitting inside a cement cage, my hands able to touch both walls simultaneously. The transportive qualities of “Stay Tuned,” like those of “Illumination,” are unreal; these are the history lessons art is meant to teach.

Ai Weiwei, “Yours Truly” (2014), visitor letters ready to send to political prisoners around the world

Often, when we see powerful political artwork, we’re left feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, wondering what we can do in the face of such extreme oppression. “Yours Truly” (2014), Ai’s final piece of the show, provides the visitor with an easy but moving answer: write to a political prisoner, right now. Stacks of postcards line large wooden shelves, all of them arranged by country, featuring either the national flower or bird, and pre-addressed to many of the subjects of “Trace.” Next to the shelves are large tables with benches and library lamps where visitors can sit and write letters of their own.

One of the most inspiring experiences of my trip was finding the post office bins next to the shelves filled with hundreds of handwritten cards by prior visitors. A docent informed me that the bins fill up fast — a feat well worth celebrating. Although I’ve written to several inmates before, it took a long time for me to find the words within the growing din of a tourist-filled Alcatraz. I hope my postcard makes it.

An Alcatraz cell block that used to house over 300 inmates

@Large represents a convergence of one artist’s experience of persecution with the history of imprisonment. It’s an amazing opportunity to both see good art and visit Alcatraz, but the show isn’t nearly as site-specific as I’d hoped, possibly due to Ai’s ongoing confinement to China. The unique history of Alcatraz, as well as an engagement with the US’ sky-high rates of incarceration (especially in California), are glaringly absent. This missed opportunity and misalignment feel palpable when watching the majority of the viewers — tourists visiting Alcatraz, not Ai’s show — walk by the art with bewildered looks on their faces. Still, Ai deftly drives home the point that while Alcatraz is a fascinating relic and tourist destination, its politics remain alive and enacted throughout the world.

@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz continues through April 26, 2015, on Alcatraz Island (San Francisco).

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Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...