Freedom rings on Alcatraz 

click to enlarge An installation of a huge dragon is among the works filling a building that once was a federal prison in the dramatic exhibition “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.” - AP PHOTO/ERIC RISBERG
  • AP Photo/Eric Risberg
  • An installation of a huge dragon is among the works filling a building that once was a federal prison in the dramatic exhibition “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.”
Tibetan singer Lolo is there. Rwandan journalist Agnes Uwimana Nkusi is there. Even the creator of “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz,” Ai Weiwei himself, is there.

But only in spirit. All three have been incarcerated or otherwise restricted for expressing their beliefs, a harsh reality that forms the basis of a large-scale, site-specific exhibit on view on Alcatraz through April 26.

Chinese artist and activist Ai, who was imprisoned for 81 days on hazy charges of tax evasion in 2011 and is barred from leaving the country, worked with San Francisco’s FOR-SITE Foundation on an exhibit of sculpture, sound and mixed-media works focusing on human rights, freedom of expression and incarceration.

“If one person walks away from this exhibition thinking differently about their individual responsibility in the world, or understanding the concept of freedom in a better way, this project will have been a great success,” says Cheryl Haines, FOR-SITE founder and curator of “@Large.”

Haines traveled to Beijing to organize the exhibit with Ai. Coordination included the most granular details, including the placement of each of the1.2 million Lego bricks that form “Trace,” one of several pieces staged in parts of the former federal prison that are usually strictly off-limits.

The colorful Legos arranged on the floor of the New Industries Building form 175 portraits of men, women and children around the world imprisoned or exiled for their beliefs.

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who is living in hiding in Russia after blowing the whistle on American surveillance policies, is rendered in black, white and gray toy bricks. A bright starburst of Legos forms the image of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was detained by the Chinese government at age 6 in 1995, just days after being named 11th Panchen Lama of Tibetan Buddhism. He has not been seen in public since, according to the binders with brief biographies that accompany the exhibit.

The same building, where inmates once did laundry and other manual labor, houses “With Wind,” a selection of traditional Chinese kites suspended from the ceiling. A vibrantly colored dragon kite dominates the gray space. Nearby, “Refraction’s” reflective panels form a giant wing.

They are “metaphors of flight, representing freedom,” Haines says. “Refraction,” especially, is “a wing that’s still, trapped inside the building and unable to fly.”

In the main jail’s A-block, visitors in cramped cells listen to songs, poems and speeches – many written during incarceration – by Martin Luther King Jr., Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, Russian punk band Pussy Riot and more. Upstairs in the prison hospital, Buddhist chants and songs of the Hopi tribe fill psychiatric observation cells as porcelain bouquets fill crumbling sinks, toilets and bathtubs.

It’s a bold undertaking for a 22-acre outpost of the National Park Service that has previously hosted only small exhibits of prisoner artwork and watercolors inspired by the island’s gardens.

The message connects in authentic ways with the Alcatraz story, and that’s what really gave us the confidence that this bold experiment was worth pursuing,” says Greg Moore, president and CEO of the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy, one of several partners on the project.

Frank Dean, general superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, says the island and prison don’t expect an appreciable increase in foot traffic over the 1.4 million people that already visit every year. He does expect the exhibit will lure more locals to the tourist attraction.

The end result is that Alcatraz, which started as a Spanish fortress in the 1700s and U.S. military prison in the 1800s, becomes a place to celebrate freedom.

“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned,” Ai says in exhibit materials. “This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on the windowsill.”


@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

Where: Alcatraz Island, boats leave from Pier 33, S.F.

When: Daily, ferries run from 8:45 a.m.

Tickets: Free admission; $30 for ferry ride


About The Author

Giselle Velazquez

Giselle Velazquez was born and raised in the shadow of San Francisco's Diamond Heights and now lives in the shadow of South San Francisco's Sign Hill. She has written for publications such as The S.F. Examiner, Ventura County Star, and the S.F. Bay Guardian.
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