Friday, October 03, 2014

Ai Weiwei's "@Large" exhibition provokes free-thought behind Alcatraz's bars

Photo of Ai Weiwei courtesy of Brooklyn Museum
Ai Weiwei, the Beijing-based artist and activist, paired up with Cheryl Haines and the FOR-SITE Foundation to exercise full creative freedom in an exhibition called "@Large" in historically one of the world's most confining places: Alcatraz.

Now one of the US's most visited national parks, Alcatraz has a dark past as a military fortress, federal penitentiary for the nation's most notorious criminals and a site of Native American protests.

While tasked with creating works expressing the tension between freedom and imprisonment, Ai Weiwei has been confined to Beijing under house arrest, barred from leaving the country. As a result, Weiwei has been working with the curator, Cheryl Haines, and her organization, the FOR-SITE Foundation, to defy distance and restriction to commemorate the individuals who dared to express their ideas and beliefs.

Weiwei created seven unique installations throughout Alcatraz to give visitors a thoughtful experience regarding the spectrum between free expression and extreme oppression.

"With Wind" by Ai Weiwei
"With Wind" is an installation that occupies the New Industries Building, which was used for prison labor. Applying a contemporary twist on the traditional Chinese dragon kites, Weiwei constructed floating kites donned with birds and allusions to flight that weave throughout the space, suspended in air. Although the positioning of the work creates the sense of motion and flight, the figure remains frozen and immobile.

The installation colorfully represents the restriction of free expression with obvious comparisons to Chinese culture. Weiwei fearlessly interjected modern references such as this throughout the exhibition to remind visitors that although Alcatraz is now closed, government oppression is a still salient and present issue.

"Trace" by Ai Weiwei
"Trace" occupies the floor of the New Industries Building and consists of over 175 portraits constructed with LEGO bricks. Depicting the faces of some of the world's most famous activists, like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., the installation also pays homage to and highlights the work of lesser-known or more controversial figures. The installation aims to humanize and "put a face" to the confinement of individuals and the issues they represented.

"Refraction" by Ai Weiwei

"Refraction" is a two ton sculpture made with large solar panels and housed in the lower floor of the New Industries Building. Although bolted to the ground, the sculpture evokes the symbol of flight and gives the impression of a giant winged figure about to take flight. The enormity of the figure is viewed by visitors from the gun gallery above. The visitors stand where the armed guards would have been monitoring inmates. Viewing the sculpture through the dusty, broken glass of the building's windows evokes the disparity between the powerful and the powerless.

"Blossom" by Ai Weiwei
"Blossom"takes visitors through the hospital ward cells and medical offices. Focusing on the toilets, tubs and sinks, Weiwei filled the utilitarian fixtures with white, fragile, porcelain flowers. The bold installation is an overt reference to the 1956 Chinese campaign "Hundred Flowers," which represented a period of freedom of expression and was followed by a severe period of oppression.

"Illumination" by Ai Weiwei
"Illumination" also takes place within the hospital ward. The chants of both Tibetan monks and Native Americans resonate and haunt two of the tiled chambers of the ward. The Tibetan chants refer to the detainment suffered by the monks for defying the Chinese government, and the Native American chant refers to the exile and suffering of the people who protested on the island years before. Weiwei placed the hypnotizing chants within the hospital ward where many prisoners were determined mentally ill, stripped of their rights, confined and observed.

"Stay Tuned" by Ai Weiwei
"Stay Tuned" incorporates the 12 consecutive cells in A Block to give an auditory experience to visitors.  People are encouraged to sit in each of the blocks, where audio recordings of spoken word, poetry and music are played on a loop.  These recordings come directly from the individuals who were among those detained for the expression of their beliefs including Tibetan singer Lolo, Chilean singer and poet Victor Jara and Martin Luther King Jr.

"Yours Truly" by Ai Weiwei
Lastly, the installation "Yours Truly" gives visitors the opportunity to write postcards to current political prisoners, many of whom were featured throughout the exhibition. The postcards provided also use the symbol of flight by featuring the national birds of all of the countries where the prisoners are held. Speaking from personal experience, Weiwei uses this installation to highlight and counteract the profound isolation felt from prisoners.

This diverse and original exhibition's ability to communicate the importance of human rights as well as the persistence of governmental oppression reiterates the essential function artists and other creative thinkers pose to our societies. Weiwei uses art as a vehicle to communicate human suffering, empowerment and political issues affecting the whole world.

Details of each installment and high-resolution photographs and audio clips of the exhibition can be found on the FOR-SITE Foundation's website.

All photos are courtesy of the FOR-SITE Foundation.  Sources include: San Francisco Weekly, Design Bloom, W Magazine, and

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