Art on Alcatraz: Exhibit by Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei opens at America’s most infamous prison

A traditional Chinese dragon as part of the @Large exhibit at Alcatraz.

A traditional Chinese dragon as part of the @Large exhibit at Alcatraz.  (Blane Bachelor)

A highly anticipated exhibition at America’s most famous prison by one of China’s most prolific contemporary artists will open to the public Saturday. Organizers predict that @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz could set new records for the federal-penitentiary-turned-national-park, which already sees upward of 1.5 million visitors per year.

But the artist behind it, Ai Weiwei, best known for his work on the elaborate “Birds Nest” stadium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, won’t be in attendance to witness the unveiling, as he’s prohibited by the Chinese government from leaving his country.


In the spring of 2011, Ai spent 81 days incarcerated on charges by the Chinese government of tax evasion. Following his release, he was forbidden from leaving Beijing, where he is based, for one year, and he’s still currently forbidden to travel outside of China.

So, from his Beijing studio nearly 6,000 miles away, Ai worked closely with various groups in the Bay Area, including the lead organization For-Site Foundation, as well as the National Park Service, which oversees Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservatory, to develop the exhibit.

The exhibit, which focuses on themes of freedom of expression, human rights, confinement, and justice, is one of the most ambitious ever to be displayed at any national park. The installations were built in China and moved via container ship, airplane, and barge to Alcatraz. Assistants from Ai’s studio in Beijing traveled to San Francisco and worked with detailed instructions from the artist in collaboration with teams from the For- Site Foundation.

 “With [our executive director] flying over to Beijing six times since last September, bringing voluminous floor plans, video walk-throughs, history books, every film that has ever been made on Alcatraz to him, and having weekly Skype calls, it’s amazing that we could actually do this,” project director Marnie Burke de Guzman told at a media preview. “But the fact of having [Ai] not here became evident in ways large and small throughout the project. He did a remarkable job realizing works that are not separate from their environment.”


The seven site-specific installations are located in spaces not usually open to the public: the two-story building where “privileged” inmates were permitted to work; the hospital main ward and psychiatric observation cells (open only during night tours of Alcatraz); and A Block, the only cellblock not remodeled since the prison was built in the early 20th century.

The exhibition is carried out in a range of mediums-- including light, sound, and texture -- and draws from both Ai’s political beliefs as well as Alcatraz’s complex history.  In the 19th-century it was a military fortress and later became a notorious federal penitentiary that once housed some of America’s most dangerous criminals (Al Capone, George "Machine-Gun" Kelly, and Alvin Karpis all served time here), as well as the site of a Native American occupation.

Curator Cheryl Haines said she started thinking about Alcatraz as a possible site for a future art exhibit about two years ago. “It seemed to me that although there is a very fine story told here already through the Parks Conservancy audio tour, adding another layer by bringing an artist like Ai Weiwei to provide another lens for a greater understanding of the issues around humans rights and detainment and protest would be very poignant and potent.”

Highlights include a floor installation called “Trace,” made from 1.2 million Legos portraying 176 individuals who have been imprisoned or exiled, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Edward Snowden. But, Burke noted, “many of these people are not well known … and are in some ways forgotten, and that’s one of the things that troubled Ai Wei Wei while he was in prison – to sacrifice at that level and not have the support from the outside.”


The nearby gun gallery, the area from which guards once observed “privileged” prisoners working in the New Industries Building, is the only viewing area for a massive construction entitled “Refraction,” a five-ton sculpture that resembles a wing and consists mostly of found objects, including utensils like teapots and solar cookers from Tibet.

But perhaps the most powerful aspects of the exhibit are the galleries where Ai uses sound. In “Stay Tuned,” located in Cell Block A, voice recordings, poems, and songs from political prisoners are transmitted into individual cell blocks through the rusted ventilation system, with a sole steel stool for visitors to sit on while listening.

And in “Illumination,” located in two extremely confining psychiatric observation cells of the prison hospital, visitors take in recorded traditional chants of Hopi Native Americans in one cell, which reflect the American Indian conscientious objectors who were once imprisoned at Alcatraz, and, in the other, chanting from a Buddhist monastery, evoking China’s violent annexation of Tibet.


One addition that will surely please tech-loving visitors: the first-ever installation of Wifi on Alcatraz, a decision that was “carefully” made to “not only to encourage to visitors to communicate with their family and friends … but to do some more research on the people that are depicted in some of these works,” Haines said.

If You Go:

@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz: The exhibition runs until April 26, 2015. Tickets are $30 for the ferry to Alcatraz and may be reserved up to three months in advance at Reservations for the 8:45 a.m. ferry, which has reserved spaces for exhibit visitors, can be made at www.

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