Art Exhibition on Alcatraz is All About Freedom

The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.
—Ai Weiwei

On Friday, March 13, 2015, I visited Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay for the third time. I have seen the former prison before. I have walked the grounds, taken the self-guiding audio tour, walked the cell block, and had my picture taken in one of the cells. This time was different. This time, I went to Alcatraz to see the work of contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

"With Wind" dragon's head (right) and body circles.
“With Wind” dragon’s head (right) and body circles.

Who is Ai Weiwei?
Born in 1957, Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist whose sometimes-controversial works span many media and genres, including visual arts, architecture and music. He was an artistic consultant on the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics and was given Lifetime Achievement honors by the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards in 2008. He co-founded China Art Archives and Warehouse in 1997 and serves as its artistic director.

Ai Weiwei is also an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and of international abuses of power and oppression of freedom. His artwork often expresses these themes. Not surprisingly, and despite his many awards in his native country, he is often at odds with the Chinese government. Ai Weiwei was arrested in 2011 on allegations of “economic crimes” and held for 81 days without being charged with a crime. Despite being subsequently unable to leave the country, he collaborated with For-Site production company of San Francisco, Calif., to produce and install At Large (a.k.a. “@ Large”): Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.

Freedom Art in a Maximum-Security Prison
Seven separate artworks comprise the At Large exhibition, several of which are in parts of the Alcatraz facility not normally open to the public.

Portraits of 176 people who have been detained for their beliefs.
Portraits of 176 people who have been detained for their beliefs.

The centerpiece of “With Wind” is a giant dragon kite, whose fierce multi-colored face, sharp “fangs,” and Twitter-logo eyes greet visitors as they enter the New Industries building, where prisoners once produced items such as gloves and uniforms. The body of the dragon is composed of scores of individual circles suspended in the air in a serpentine line, each a colorful work of art in its own right. The circles depict beautiful flora and fauna, contrasting sharply with the dingy and desolate disrepair of the old concrete prison facility. Some of the circles include quotes from those who have been imprisoned or have fought for freedom, such as “…privacy is a function of liberty;” “…my words are well intended and innocent;” and “Every one of us is a potential convict.” Suspended in the air around the dragon are swallow-tailed bird kites, a visual reminder of freedom.

On the lower level of the New Industries building, “Refraction” turns again to the bird metaphor, using the reflective panels of solar cookers from Tibet as the “feathers” on a giant bird wing. Tibetans have long struggled under Chinese domination, and the use of these panels, along with cooking implements such as woks and teapots, is plaintive.

The portraits are made of 1.2 million individual Lego pieces.
The portraits are made of 1.2 million individual Lego pieces.

Portraits in Legos
The artwork that has garnered the most media attention is called “Trace.” This piece consists of 176 portraits of individuals who have been detained or imprisoned for their beliefs or affiliations. The portraits, made entirely of Lego® blocks, are on the floor of the New Industries building’s top level. Binders with brief stories of each person’s alleged transgressions are provided to further visitors’ understanding.

Audio, Porcelain, And Interactive “Art”
“Stay Tuned” is a sound installation in the Cellhouse A Block. Music, poetry and prose are played in each of a dozen cells. A simple steel stool in each cell invites lone contemplation of works from freedom proponents as diverse as Martin Luther King and Russia’s Pussy Riot. “Illumination” pipes Tibetan and Native American chanting into two adjacent rooms formerly used for psychiatric observation, creating a moving juxtaposition.

With the other visual art on such a grand scale, “Blossom” is a surprise piece in which Ai Weiwei has filled pedestrian fixtures, such as bathtubs, sinks, and toilets, in the prison’s former hospital ward with tiny, delicate, all-white porcelain flowers.

Finally, “Yours Truly” offers a visitor the opportunity to send a postcard to one of the prisoners still incarcerated for his or her beliefs. Situated in the former dining hall of the prison, this “exhibit” personalizes the experience.

For more information on the exhibition, go to The exhibition is scheduled to remain installed through April 26, 2015, and at this writing, no plans are in place to exhibit the pieces elsewhere, as all of the artworks were specifically designed for their respective rooms on Alcatraz.

Have you experienced an art exhibition, particularly an outdoor or “in place” exhibit, that made you think more deeply about the world around you?



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