Art and Politics in Prison: Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz

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Emily Pinnell-Stewart 
Staff Writer

The sensational political artist, Ai Weiwei, is having an exhibit on Alcatraz until April 26, 2015. In 2011, Ai was taken captive for 81 days for his political and social activism that outspokenly critiqued the Chinese government. His detention sparked outrage among both Chinese and international citizens, and not only generated media attention for his artwork, but furthered discussions on the censorship of free speech and expression in China. Though he is currently unable to leave China, Ai has still created an elaborate display within one of America’s most notorious prisons. 

“@Large: Ai Weiwei” is an exhibit that focuses on the idea of freedom of speech and how governments around the world have stifled such expression throughout history. The artwork focuses particularly on political prisoners and the injustices they have faced, something that connects not only with Ai’s story but with the history of Alcatraz as well. As he was unable to come and place the pieces himself, most of the art was created at Ai’s home studio and shipped over, including a piece that weighs over five tons collectively. All of his pieces are up for interpretation, but the development of each and how they connect with imprisonment, both literally and figuratively, is evident.

The first installment, titled “With Wind,” is housed in the New Industries Building, the building that once stored factories in which privileged inmates worked for money. The piece, composed of dozens of colorful kites, displays a large, traditional Chinese dragon that seems to be gliding along the room. In his description, Ai presents the installment as a representation of “personal freedom,” where each individual kite carries quotes from activists who have been imprisoned or exiled.

“Trace,” the second installment within the New Industries Building, focuses on 176 portraits of activists that have been incarcerated for expressing their beliefs or affiliations. Some of these faces include Martin Luther King Jr. and Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner. What’s really interesting is that the entire piece was hand built with Lego bricks, mostly from Ai’s home studio. Other parts of it were created in Alcatraz by volunteers, under Ai’s instruction. Under this installment, in the New Industries Building’s lower gun gallery, we are shown “Refraction,” a wing-like sculpture that weighs over five tons and incorporates reflective solar panel cookers used in Tibet, alluding to China’s current occupation within the region.

In the main building of the prison, we see the other half of the exhibit. “Stay Tuned” is an installment in an entire cell block that focuses exclusively on sound. Each individual cell of the A-block, which formerly housed mainly military prisoners, played an audio recording of someone who had either been detained for their creative expression, or created their art while incarcerated. Visitors can sit within these cells and listen to the many different tracks playing on repeat. The dining area of Alcatraz is where one of the most interactive pieces, “Yours Truly,” invites visitors to communicate directly with current prisoners who have been incarcerated for their political involvement with freedom of speech and expression. Visitors choose a post-card that’s been pre-addressed to a prisoner and write whatever message they want. The postcards are then placed in bins where they will be mailed by “@Large” guides.

The final two exhibits were held within Alcatraz’s hospital, a particularly creepy place that isn’t usually open to the general public. One of the pieces, “Illumination,” is yet another audio experience where visitors stand within the chambers, once occupied by mentally ill inmates, and listen to recordings of Tibetan and Native American chanting. Prisoners were often punished for this chanting, and in Ai’s opinion, this too was an example of freedom being taken away from those that used their voices for expression. The other piece, “Blossom,” is the placement of delicate porcelain flowers within the hospital’s many utilitarian fixtures. In contrast with the harshness of the building, the chanting and flowers represent comfort and peace for all those who have been imprisoned, as well as those that still are.

This is the kind of exhibit that shouldn’t be missed. Considering it goes until spring, there is plenty of time to take a trip down to The Rock and see it for yourself. “@Large” shows a contrast of expression and oppression within society and the human conscience. Ai Weiwei’s work continues to promote freedom for all, even when freedom is not a luxury he currently possesses. I think this is something we all can learn from. 

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