seven sculpture, sound, and mixed-media works by chinese artist ai weiwei infill alcatraz island for his exhibition ‘@large’, as an investigation of human rights and freedom of expression in the context of the historic space. the site-specific installations are installed across four locations within the building, drawing reference from the island’s multifaceted history as a 19th-century military fortress, notorious federal prison, important ground of native american history, and now one of america’s most visited national parks.

 

each piece aims to raise questions about the social implications of incarceration and the definitions of justice, individual rights, and personal responsibility. ‘the misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned‘ ai weiwei explains ‘this is not the case. when you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.’

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘with wind’, 2014 (installation view, new industries building, alcatraz)
all images © jan stürmann, courtesy of FOR-SITE foundation

 

 

 

‘@large’ is perceived through the lens of ai weiwei‘s own personal experiences: the artist is currently prohibited from leaving beijing, and is still forbidden to travel outside of china. because ai could not visit alcatraz, he developed the works in his beijing studio.

 

the site-specific installations are located in the two-story new industries building where privileged inmates were permitted to work, the hospital main ward and psychiatric observation cells, a cell block — the only to have not been remodeled since the military prison was constructed in the early 20th century — and the dining hall. the exhibition is organized by the for-site foundation in partnership with the national park service and the golden gate national parks conservancy.

 

‘with wind’ — located within the new industries building once used for prison labor — features a contemporary version of the traditional chinese ‘dragon kite’. strewen around the room are other kites adorned with stylized birds and flowers. trapped inside the building and unable to fly, the position of the kites suggests the powerful contradiction of freedom and restriction.

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘with wind’, 2014 (installation view, new industries building, alcatraz)

 

 

‘trace’ spans the new industries building floor with a field of more than 175 colorful portraits, intricately constructed from LEGO bricks. each represents an individual who has been imprisoned or exiled because of his or her beliefs, actions, or affiliations, applying a human face to political detainment.

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘trace’ 2014 (installation detail, new industries building, alcatraz)

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘trace’ 2014  (detail)

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘trace’ 2014  (detail)

ai-weiwei-alcatraz-large-designboom-26
ai weiwei, ‘trace’ 2014  (detail)

 

 

 

‘refraction’ — located on the lower floor of the new industries building and viewed from the gun gallery above — positions the visitor in the role of the prison guard. the monumental installation weighs more than five tons and is composed of reflective panels originally used on tibetan solar cookers. the work uses the symbolic imagery of flight to evoke the tension between freedom and confinement. 

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘refraction’ 2014 (installation view, new industries building, alcatraz)

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘refraction’ 2014 (installation view, new industries building, alcatraz)

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘refraction’ 2014 (installation detail, new industries building, alcatraz)

 

 

with intricately detailed ceramic flowers, ai transforms utilitarian fixtures such as sinks, toilets and tubs in several hospital ward cells and medical offices into fragile porcelain bouquets. ‘blossom’ evokes an ironic reference to china’s famous hundred flowers campaign of 1956, a brief period of government tolerance of free expression, immediately followed by a severe crackdown against dissent.

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘blossom’, 2014 (installation detail, alcatraz hospital)

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘blossom’, 2014 (installation detail, alcatraz hospital)

 

 

an intimate and evocative sound installation, ‘stay tuned’ invites visitors into 12 individual cells in a block, where they can sit and listen to spoken words, poetry, and music by people who have been imprisoned for the creative expression of their beliefs.

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘stay tuned’ 2014 (installation detail, A block, alcatraz)

 

 

‘yours truly’ is a work where visitors are encouraged to write postcards addressed to some of the prisoners represented in ‘trace’. the cards are adorned with images of birds and plants representing the nations where the prisoners are held. ai has spoken of the deep feeling of isolation that afflicts incarcerated people; ‘yours truly’ is a direct response to these concerns, serving as a reminder that their voices have not been forgotten.

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘yours truly’, 2014 (installation view, alcatraz dining hall)

ai weiwei on alcatraz large
ai weiwei, ‘yours truly’, 2014 (installation view, alcatraz dining hall)