Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz: The Art of Political Dissidence

What is possible when an iconic artist, confined to China with no passport, takes over an iconic landmark wrought with political history? Art world intrigue abounded in the lead up to the opening of Ai Weiwei’s exhibition on Alcatraz, the federal penitentiary-turned-national park located on the San Francisco Bay. Organized by the FOR-SITE Foundation and curated by FOR-SITE’s Cheryl Haines, who visited Ai’s studio in Beijing and worked closely with his assistants to put together the exhibition, “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” contains seven different installations in four areas of the historic prison campus, including buildings previously cordoned off to viewers.

Several of the works in the exhibition directly involve prisoners of conscience: those imprisoned solely for the peaceful expression of their beliefs or because of their race or identity. Their portraits—pixelated, symbolic, and made from a single layer of Legos—appear in Trace (2014). Assembled by 90 volunteers and park staff, the monumental work is impressive and overwhelming. The 176 individual subjects depicted in the piece have been brought together in the same room, connected by the iconic plastic building blocks. Arranged in a grid-like pattern on the floor, the likenesses of these prisoners feel palpably present yet elusive, their existence rendered fragile due to their medium. In the elevated gun galley surrounding the room, where armed guards once stood, visitors can peer through glass, to gaze down on the Lego faces. Further along in the exhibition, another piece, Yours Truly (2014), allows viewers to communicate via postcard with the individuals featured in Trace who are still alive and incarcerated, transcending the heavy institutional walls surrounding the exhibition and the recipient. 

Most poignant are the pieces that offer sonic agency to prisoners of conscience. Stay Tuned (2014) is housed in a row of tiny barred cells with the doors swung open for visitors to enter. Recordings of songs, speeches, and poems by several political dissidents are played separately and rather quietly in each of the twelve spaces, creating an intimate relationship with the listener. One sits on a short stool placed in the cell and bends ever so slightly downward, toward the vent near the floor where the speaker is held. In one space Pussy Riot’s “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away (Punk Prayer)” plays, and in another, visitors listen to Chilean songwriter Victor Jara’s “Manifesto.” These spaces, with paint peeling off the walls and scuffed up floors, reveal the physical traces of years of prisoner confinement—a physical residue haunting the viewing experience. Here, one can actually envision the iron door being shut and locked—a simple action that differentiates visitor and prisoner.

Illumination (2014) is housed in the old prison hospital, which looks and feels like the set of a horror film needing no embellishment. For this work, Ai has installed recordings of Tibetan and Native American chants in two psychiatric evaluation rooms, which are tiled chambers created for the observation of mentally ill patients. In these cramped rooms, the rhythmic noises—spiritual, strong, and culturally significant—contrast with the shiny mint-colored walls. The mix of clinical and consciousness is startling, bringing presence to a place that even when it was open and functioning was meant to reduce human to subject. Both haunting and aesthetically delightful, this ambitious exhibition exposes issues of freedom of speech and human rights by creating artistic possibility within and about a broken system. Giving a collective voice to silenced dissidents might just prompt newly sympathetic ears.

—Kara Q. Smith

See “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” on Artsy.

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