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The politics of prisons through art at Alcatraz

Artist Ai Weiwei explores freedom of expression inside the U.S.’s most famous jail



If you’re going to San Francisco... be sure to go directly to jail. OK, prison — Alcatraz to be specific.

First developed as a defensive fortification guarding San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island wormed its way into American pop culture as a badass prison housing the worst of the worst. Why people want to visit the place baffles me. Except between now and April 26, 2015.

From now until then, the best reason to book an excursion to Alcatraz is to see its first art exhibit ever. @Large, an installation by Chinese artist, activist, dissident, and very not-free man, Ai Weiwei, opened last month to glowing reviews. Seven works in seven settings within the prison present the likenesses or voices of almost two hundred political prisoners and prisoners of conscious. According to Weiwei, “These are all nonviolent people who have lost their freedom simply because they expressed their ideas...”

By setting it in Alcatraz — a location Weiwei has never actually seen — he strives to challenge our very notions of freedom and imprisonment.

In the most approachable and whimsical of works, With Wind, a traditional Chinese dragon kite hangs suspended from the ceiling of the New Industries Building, a location once used for prison labour. The juxtaposition of an enormous form designed to glide on wind currents confined inside a building that offered “good” prisoners a brief chance to escape the harsh reality of their cells, confronts the viewer’s very notion of freedom. That confrontation is underscored by quotations on a number of the dragon’s body panels, including one from the artist: “Every one of us is a potential convict.”

The floor below the dragon is the setting for Refraction, perhaps the most challenging of the @Large works. Viewed through the claustrophobic gun gallery — a narrow corridor where the prison’s only armed guards could monitor prisoners at work — one glimpses Refraction through small broken and rusted windows. It is virtually impossible to fully appreciate the enormous metal wing, composed of reflective, polished metal panels used as solar cookers in Tibet, itself a prisoner of Chinese rule. The frustrating vantage reinforces the paradox of exactly who’s imprisoned inside a prison, the prisoners or those guarding them.

In a room adjacent to With Wind, Weiwei messes with your mind. Interlocked across a vast floor space, Trace is made from over a million pieces of Lego, tracing the images of 176 people imprisoned or exiled all over the world for their beliefs, actions or affiliations. Weiwei calls them heroes; some call them traitors. Seeing them digitized in Lego leaves you pondering the insubstantiality of human existence.

The remaining installations are housed in the main cellblock. The setting is both sobering and bewildering. Row upon row of human filing cabinets stretch out in three dimensions. The cells up close resemble nothing like the impressions prison films have imprinted on popular culture. They are tiny, depressing and dehumanizing. It’s impossible to imagine life in one, as least to the extent the word has any meaning.

The most haunting piece, Stay Tuned, is housed in twelve cells in A Block. The setting is, itself, disorienting. Throngs of people who have come to see Alcatraz mill about in a silent trance, each tuned to their individual audio tour, headphones cutting them off from everyone else around them and leaving them in silence. The only sound is the spoken words, poetry and music coming from a disembodied speaker in each of the twelve Stay Tuned cells. A Tibetan singer chanting for independence, the punk sounds of Pussy Riot, the gospel cadence of Martin Luther King, all voices and music from those imprisoned for their beliefs, each experienced by the listener sitting alone, on a steel stool bolted to the floor of the cell. It’s powerful, leaving the listener with an unshakable feeling of how easy it would be to lose oneself in the isolation of confinement.

Other pieces play with other emotions. Yours Truly asks you to write postcards to political prisoners. What would you say? Illumination explores the fine line between sanity and insanity in an insane place.

The overall experience of @Large takes time to digest. The art, while hip, would be facile in any other setting. The impressions it and Alcatraz leaves are lasting and profound.