The abandoned prison on Alcatraz Island that once housed the most notorious criminals of the 1900's has been empty for over fifty years, save for seagulls and tourists (and probably ghosts). For the first time in its history, seven installations by famed artist Ai WeiWei are moving in, transforming the prison into a gallery space.
As with the artist's previous works, the exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz reflects on freedom of expression and human rights. With its stark walls, empty cells and tiny windows, the prison backdrop emphasizes the tension between restriction and liberation. In Alcatraz, each work of art is nothing without its surrounding space:
In a former labor room, a giant dragon made of colorful kites weaves in and around concrete pillars. 176 pixelated Lego portraits of political prisoners and exiles cover the floor of the Industries Building. A lone and massive bird’s wing, with Tibetan solar cooker panels for feathers, takes over the gun gallery where guards once monitored working prisoners. Each cell in A Block broadcasts a different sample of poetry or music by people who have been detained for creative expression. Ceramic flowers fill the sinks and toilets of the hospital wards. The exhibition even encourages visitors to write postcards to the political prisoners in the Lego portraits.
What's more, WeiWei himself never set foot inside Alcatraz. In 2011, he was detained by the Chinese government, and although he was released after 81 days, his passport was confiscated, making it impossible for him to leave China. Instead, Ai WeiWei pieced together the entire experience of the exhibition from photos, maps and diagrams from his studio in Beijing. His hands, in this case, belonged to the For-Site Foundation, a group that releases art into surprising spaces, the National Park Service, and The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
“It’s not just a political statement, but an experience through feelings, shapes, colors structure,” explains Ai WeiWei in a trailer for the exhibition. ”Those are very important to carry the essential ideas about freedom. To let everybody. even children, to appreciate it. We have to make it beautiful. We have to make it fly.”
Check out the FOR-Site Foundation's documentary on the creation of @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz:
And take the ferry to Alcatraz Island to witness @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, open September 27,2014 through April 26, 2015.