Ai Wei Wei on Alcatraz
Ai Wei Wei is one of the most recognisable names in art today. His politically charged installations, often opposed by the Chinese government and their strict censorship laws, blur the boundaries of art and politics and have propelled him to international fame as both an artist and an advocate for political reform. With this approach, Ai has now reached an unprecedented artistic scale – he has organised an extensive, site-specific takeover of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco bay.
In this series of new works created specifically for Alcatraz, Ai has responded to the island’s controversial history, and transformed the space from an almost eerie fortress for quiet reflection, to a platform for outspoken protest, with bright and bold works that cross cultures. Alcatraz itself is no stranger to tumult or demonstration, having been home to a notorious federal penitentiary, as well as a site of Native American heritage and protest. Ai’s installations take on these histories, and explore new perspectives on the island, whilst still representing the liberal opposition to oppressive contemporary regimes that he is known for.
Inside the old penitentiary, there are seven different installation areas to be explored. In the former workshops used by prisoners, there is Trace, covering the floor with 176 portraits of people from around the world who have been imprisoned or exiled because of their beliefs or affiliations, and With Wind, a dazzling elongated Chinese dragon kite lifted to the ceiling and curving around corners, in a representation of personal freedom. In the hospital ward cells there is Blossom – delicate sculptures of ceramic flowers filling the sinks, toilets, and baths that were once used by hospitalised prisoners, and Illumination, a sound installation featuring recordings of Tibetan and Native American chants in a homage to people who have resisted cultural and political repression. These poignant works pulse under the weight of the social and political references – emotive and compelling, they create an entire experience.
As often with Ai’s work, these displays raise questions about freedom of expression and human rights that resonate far beyond the walls of Alcatraz, yet can still be thoroughly enjoyed viscerally, and applauded for its display of incredible craftsmanship and creativity, as well as for the startling juxtapositions in its setting. This show is one of the most monumental feats for art and activism of recent memory, and will be talked about for years to come. We can think of no better reason to make a trip to the bay.
‘@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, on Alcatraz Island’, San Francisco Bay, California, until 26 April 2015: