A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Ai Weiwei's Sobering Alcatraz Exhibition

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By Erika Heet / Published by Dwell
Dwell visits the Chinese artist's most recent offering and chats with the show's organizer.

Still in its first weeks, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz in San Francisco, has already garnered much attention for its compelling takeover of the prison hospital, A Block cells, the dining hall and the former laundry building—some areas not usually open to the public.

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Trace comprises 175 abstracted portraits of prisoners both past and present, rendered with 1.2 million Legos. The colorful medium is a direct, stark contrast to the subject.

Unable to leave China after his passport was not returned following his incarceration in 2011, Ai arranged the exhibition in his Beijing studio with help from the For-Site Foundation. The scope of the show is massive, and takes full advantage of the prison’s haunting, open venues. It meanders through a variety of spaces—including psychiatric observation rooms—and media ranging from sound to paper and metal. He uses objects usually associated with children—Legos, 1.2 million of them, to be exact—for Trace, which abstractly depicts political prisoners. "These are nonviolent people who have lost their freedom simply because they expressed their ideas….In truth, they are heroes of our time," says Ai. Whether by intention or accident, children attending the exhibition were clearly focused on the Lego portraits.

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Another clear juxtaposition takes place in With Wind, which pairs a delicate, joyful Chinese dragon with quotes about freedom and justice from those depicted in Trace. With Wind is housed in a building reserved for prison labor—considered a privilege at Alcatraz. Its light materials and joyful colors are brought down to earth by its oppressive, crumbling surroundings.

After visiting @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, Dwell interviewed Cheryl Haines, founding executive director of the For-Site Foundation, which organized the exhibition.

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Ai incorporated himself into the show in a subtle way, with these words on the With Wind dragon.

How was Ai able to envision the space so completely without visiting? How did For-Site help?

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Refraction can only be viewed via the gun gallery, where armed guards once patrolled. The sculpture, made up of Tibetan solar panels, seems poised to fly, yet too heavy and constrained to do so.

Ai Weiwei has the rare ability to not only present important ideas but to interpret a place that he hasn’t even physically visited. We supported Ai’s personal interpretation of the site by providing him with in-depth information about Alcatraz, including maps, archival materials, photographs, and video footage conveying the history of the island and the spaces where the works are installed.

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Stay Tuned is an audio exhibition, which pipes protest songs and speeches through the grates in individual cells, made infamous for becoming the passageway allowing the famous escape from Alcatraz.

Additionally, this project would have been absolutely impossible without modern technology and tools of communication (Skype, email, etc)—which in and of itself is a major theme of Ai’s work: how we, as global citizens, communicate and how communication serves as an essential tool of activism and change.

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With Blossom, Ai fills the vessels in the hospital and psychiatric wing with white porcelain flowers, infusing a healing element to a bleak canvas.

How did this exhibition come about?

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The exhibition concludes with the interactive Yours Truly, in which visitors select postcards to send to the subjects of the Trace portraits.

I first met Ai Weiwei in his studio in Beijing in 2008, when I was there doing an investigative trip to further understand the Chinese contemporary art scene.

We had a meeting at his Beijing studio shortly after he was released from detainment in 2011.  He mentioned his interest in sharing his work and ideas with a broader audience.  I had been thinking that Alcatraz would be great place to activate with contemporary art. So I suggested it. His response was, "I would like that."

Thus it began. A notorious military and federal penitentiary turned national park, Alcatraz is rich with cultural and social meaning and is a profound setting to mount an exhibition that explores themes such as the right to free expression, the irrepressible nature of creativity, the role of art, artists, and individuals in working toward social change, and the importance of communication in creating a just society.

You visited Ai several times to help with the exhibition. What can you tell us about this process, where in essence you brought the exhibition space to him?

I traveled to Beijing to work with Ai in his studio several times throughout the development of the exhibition. Working with Ai Weiwei is truly inspiring. His acute understanding of architectural space and the built environment, and his interest in illuminating the human condition, are unparalleled. Ai paid special and careful attention to Alcatraz’s different functions across time; the life of the prisoners when it served as a federal penitentiary; the precise measurements of the cells, staircases, and doorways.  

How do you feel this exhibition might have shifted were Ai allowed to leave China and see the Alcatraz space? He has never been, correct?

Yes, Ai Weiwei has never visited Alcatraz. It would have been wonderful for Ai to visit the space so that he could experience Alcatraz and the range of emotions and questions that walking through these spaces elicit, and for him to have been able to participate directly in the installation of his work. The installations, however, have far exceeded my initial imaginations for what this project could be—each work is graceful and striking in its own way, and simultaneously shares such important and powerful messages about human rights and freedom of expression around the world. Of course, as with all of Weiwei’s friends and colleagues around the world, we hope every day that he receives his passport back and his freedom to travel; and while I imagine if he had been on-site it’s possible the show may have been different, it was truly an inspiring experience to work in collaboration with Weiwei to bring this show to life.

What has Ai told you about the challenges of not being able to see the exhibition space? 

As you can expect, it was difficult for him to get a full sense of the unique spaces on Alcatraz without being able to see it in person—but as any visitor to the exhibition can see, he more than surpassed this challenge and has created striking works that powerfully speak to the layered history of the site. He studied every aspect of the island, through books, memoirs, and photographs—examining everything from the rocky pathways that wind across the Island, to the water tower covered with graffiti from the Native American occupation, to the three-tiered cellblocks—truly creating a mental picture of the entire Island, and then visualizing how the installations would work within the spaces.

What has Ai told you about the importance of holding the exhibition at Alcatraz?

When the idea of mounting an exhibition on Alcatraz first came up, Ai was immediately interested.  I think there are a number of reasons for this: Since Alcatraz is a major travel destination that reaches thousands of visitors from all over the world every day, this project was an exciting opportunity to share his art and activism with a broad spectrum of people. 

The exhibition also brings his art and ideas far beyond the traditional art world, giving him the opportunity to engage new audiences with new works that address critical issues of human rights and freedom of expression, using Alcatraz’s powerful and layered history as a platform to address these complex issues.