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Sept. 22: Columbia City

Sunday, April 12, 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
"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.

 You can read more about my experience at the exhibition on my blog

In-depth information:


  1. Interesting story and great sketches Jane

  2. This expressive exhibition was remarkable; Alcatraz was quite a hill town. Great works.