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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

@Large: Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz

Ai Weiwei wasn't always a dissident -- at least not officially. It wasn't until the Sichuan earthquake 2008 when the Chinese government refused to release the names of over 5000 children who died, that Weiwei confronted the government directly. He produced a performance piece that read each child's name continuously and posted it online. Since then the Chinese government has kept him under continuous surveillance. Weiwei continues to speak out.

@Large: Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz, a potent and provocative installation at America's most notorious prison-turned-national-park embodies the idea that freedom of expression cannot be silenced. The seven installations in four separate buildings are integrated with the standard Alcatraz tour. Weiwei's work, however, transforms the crusty prison,  confronting visitors with stark contrasts and bringing up questions about freedom and human rights.

Sketched on location while visiting Beijing January 2015
On April 3, 2010 police arrested Weiwei without charges and detained him at an unknown location for 81 days, finally releasing him on June 22 without explanation and without his passport. He cannot leave China. A bicycle whose basket of flowers is refreshed daily sits just outside the door of his Beijing studio, and beneath several surveillance cameras--a silent statement.

Because he cannot leave China, Weiwei used books, memoirs, & photos to study the Alcatraz prison site, mapping it's construction and layout while designing the exhibition. Weiwei's staff, park staff and local volunteers assembled the installations.

Weiwei uses the opportunity of the exhibition to speak to what happens when people lose the ability so speak freely and to bring the conversation to a broader audience. He researched political prisoners throughout the world and uses this opportunity to call them, their repression and their causes to our attention.

The theme of human rights, freedom of expression and the political repression of many countries, including the U.S., runs throughout the exhibition.

THE NEW INDUSTRIES BUILDING - the vast structure where inmates worked doing laundry for military bases and manufacturing goods for government use. The three most visually dramatic installations are in this building.

With Wind
A traditional hand-painted silk Chinese Dragon kite seems to burst through the confinement; the head confronts you at the entrance and the body, hand-painted silk discs, winds through tall pillars contrasted by walls with peeling paint and exposed rusty pipes. Some silk discs display quotes from political prisoners including Weiwei.
With Wind - Industries Building - Alcatraz
The signature art piece of @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, panels with 176 faces made of millions LEGOs cover the floor in a patchwork of color. Each face is the portrait of a real person who has had some experience with political imprisonment. Some are still imprisoned; some are now free: some deceased. 

Trace - the faces of more than 175 political prisoners constructed from LEGO bricks - Industries Building - Alcatraz

Trace - photo
Refraction - New Industries Building
A massive sculpture sits in the basement of the New Industries building. The monstrous wing whose feathers are constructed with reflective panels from Tibetan solar ovens calling to mind Tibet's long struggle with the Chinese government -- a wing enclosed, captured even, by the prison walls.


Stay Tuned
Prison cells, empty except a stool and headphones invite viewers to sit inside, getting a sense of imprisonment while listening to the recorded voices of political prisoners - those who have been detained for expressing their beliefs. Isolation and expression. 


This installation in the sterile psychiatric observation room resonates with chanting from both Tibetan monks and Native American tribes, drawing a direct correlation between Chinese and American governments' oppression of native people.

In 1957 Chairman Mao initiated the Hundred Flowers Campaign inviting the population to free expression of their ideas about the governing of China.
"The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science." (Wikipedia)
Blossom - Cellhouse Hospital
As criticism of Mao increased, he changed course with what is known as the cultural revolution. Dissidents, now easily identified from their free expression, were publicly humiliated, arrested, tortured, sent to labor camps and even executed.

Weiwei's family was sent to Xinjiang Province, a remote area in western China. His father Ai Qing, once a lauded poet and scholar was forced to work daily cleaning communal toilets; their family ate seeds to survive. Knowing a bit of what his family experienced gives deeper understanding of Weiwei's crusade for free expression and human rights.

Blossom transforms fixtures - toilets, bathtubs, sinks with the installation of fragile, porcelain flowers alluding to the Hundred flowers Campaign and the possibility of transformation through free expression.

Yours Truly
Again, a memory Ai Qing, Weiwei's father informed the last installation. While the family was still in the labor camps, his father received an anonymous postcard announcing the 30 year anniversary of one of his poems. His father was deeply touched knowing that he was remembered.

Yours Truly encourages viewers to participate in a global conversation and to act to let individual prisoners know they haven't been forgotten. You can choose from any number of postcards, each addressed to a specific prisoner, with a symbol of the country where that prisoner is detained. The  cards are mailed to the individuals letting them know they are indeed remembered.
"The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill."    - Ai Weiwei
Alcatraz Island - near San Francisco

The exhibition will close April 26, 2015.

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