Sun, Oct 05, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Meditating on freedom in Alcatraz

By Noah Berger  /  AFP, SAN FRANCISCO

Ai Weiwei, Stay Tuned (2014).


Alcatraz is perhaps the world’s most famous prison. And Ai Weiwei (艾未未) is arguably China’s best known artist. Now they have come together in a viscerally powerful show in the notorious former jail.

Visitors to the island prison set in San Francisco Bay can browse seven multi-media pieces, several referencing Tibetan independence campaigners but others including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

The @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz exhibition, which opened at the weekend and runs through April, “raises questions about freedom of expression and human rights that resonate far beyond this particular place,” a spokesman said.

“Folks come out to the island all the time to Alcatraz and they hear about the gangsters, they hear about the imprisonment. But sometimes ... visitors don’t get the deep meaning of why they’re visiting a former jail,” said Michelle Gee.

“The Ai Weiwei exhibit brings a contemporary take to this and allows people really to take a deep dive and think about what it means to have freedom what it means for equality,” added the US National Park Service spokeswoman.

The show is divided into seven installations, allowing visitors to see parts of the former prison they would not usually have access to.

With Wind depicts a huge vibrantly-colored dragon: normally a symbol of mythical power, but which for Ai “represents not imperial authority, but personal freedom. Everybody has this power,” reads the show’s notes.


Trace presents pictures of 176 figures jailed or exiled for their beliefs, including Snowden and Manning, but also nearly 40 Chinese cases, 26 from among 33 countries represented. The portraits are made out of Lego blocks.

Refraction consists of an enormous metal wing, but in place of feathers, the artwork bristles with reflective panels originally used on solar cookers in Tibet.

Stay Tuned is an audio exhibit in 12 cells, where visitors can listen to the words and music of figures including pro-independence Tibetan singer Lolo, Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot and South Africa’s Robben Island Singers.

Illumination comprises two tiled chambers through which resonate the sound of Tibetan and Native American chanting, while Blossom consists of ceramic flowers set in sinks and other hospital ward fixtures.

Finally in Yours Truly visitors are invited to write postcards of messages to those featured in the Trace exhibit.

Tourists were impressed, on its first weekend on display in San Francisco. “It’s making me think about how one or two people make a stand for what they believe in,” said Australian tourist Jenny Earney.

“This is really cool, just like the experience of being actually in a cell and listening to the words or the songs of somebody that’s been persecuted in the past,” said David Connors, a San Francisco resident.

“It’s very visceral seeing the walls and the decrepit nature of the cell blocks here,” he added.

The show’s curator, Cheryl Haines, she was inspired by meeting Ai and by meeting the artist turned activist, who was held under house arrest for 81 days.

“We sat together and I said, ‘Weiwei I’m sure this has been an ordeal for you and is there any small thing I can do?’ And he said, ‘You can bring my work to a broader audience’,” she said.

“The themes of @Large are quite broad and ones that I believe interest us all. Basic human rights, freedom of expression, our individual responsibility and communication and what an important role it plays in creating a just society,” she added.

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