Famous Chinese artist’s latest exhibition on Alcatraz Island explores freedom and restraint

Art and activism collide on Alcatraz Island in Ai Weiwei, a Chinese contemporary artist’s latest exhibition—an exploration of freedom and restraint. Once a confinement for the nation’s most notorious criminals, the former penitentiary now houses seven unique installations, all a part of the exhibition.

The list of attendants did not include the Weiwei. He is one of China’s most outspoken dissidents and has been barred from leaving the country since 2011. He created the entire exhibit without ever setting foot on the island.

The exhibit was organized by the FOR-SITE Foundation, along with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservatory. FOR-SITE founding executive director and curator of @Large, Cheryl Haines, worked closely with Weiwei to transport his vision to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz visitors observe Ai Weiwei's “Trace”, an art installation of over 175 portraits made entirely of LEGO, each face depicting a subject of political detainment, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. Jenna Feeley / Xpress.

Alcatraz visitors observe Ai Weiwei’s “Trace”, an art installation of over 175 portraits made entirely of LEGO, each face depicting a subject of political detainment, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. Jennah Feeley / Xpress.

Lauren Seward/Xpress

“Ai worked with the team in his studio to develop the works in Beijing, and was in close contact with Cheryl and the presenting partners during their development,” said FOR-SITE media relations account executive Meg Floryan in an e-mail. “When it came to on-site installation, several members of his studio team traveled to the U.S. to oversee the process, with support from Bay Area volunteers.”

The San Francisco-based ODC/Dance group presented a site-specific piece that persisted during the entirety of the opening night gala on Sept 26. SF State dance students Oona Wong, Leesha Zieber and Simone Wend participated in the performance.

Several dancers performed along the installations while others were scattered around different parts of the island. “As people were walking around there were pieces of movement and dance going on,” Wong said. “One of the main themes of the dance was the feeling of being bound.”

The finale of the performance utilized a wing motif to represent freedom. “We had white fabric over our arms—we were calling them wings,” Zieber said. “That was the last image people saw as they were leaving on the ferries.”

The installations are placed in four locations of the former penitentiary. The New Industries Building features “With Wind”, a collection of kites that represent countries notorious for restricting civil rights. In line with themes of detained flight is “Refraction”, an enormous sculpture evoking the image of a bird’s wing.

The Industries Building also holds “Trace”, an installation of over 175 portraits made entirely of LEGO, laid out across the floor. Each face depicted represents a subject of political detainment, with Martin Luther King Jr. and Edward Snowden being among the most recognizable.

Several individual cells feature sound bites produced by individuals held under restraint. The installation is called “Stay Tuned” and its recordings range from Russian punk band Pussy Riot to Persian poet Ahmad Shamlu.

Alcatraz visitors observe Ai Weiwei's “Trace”, an art installation of over 175 portraits made entirely of LEGO, each face depicting a subject of political detainment, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. Jenna Feeley / Xpress.

Alcatraz visitors observe Ai Weiwei’s “Trace”, an art installation of over 175 portraits made entirely of LEGO, each face depicting a subject of political detainment, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014. Jennah Feeley / Xpress.

A second audible installation, “Illumination”, haunts the hospital’s psychiatric observation cells with recordings of chanting from a Buddhist Monastery and a traditional Hopi tribe song. The hospital’s sinks, toilets and tubs boast a multitude of ceramic flowers—a reference to China’s Hundred Flowers Movement of 1956 in an installation titled “Blossom”.

The “Yours Truly” installation invited viewers to participate in the exhibit by sending postcards pre-addressed to various prisoners including America’s own Chelsea Manning.

Weiwei’s @Large exhibit is free to Alcatraz tour ticket-holders and visitors are encouraged to book tickets in advance. The exhibit is open now through April 26, 2015.

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