Dispatch from San Francisco
@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz
September 27, 2014 to April 26, 2015
Organized by For-Site Foundation: Art About Place
It was a rather bleak, chilly afternoon when I agreed to take the ferry to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. More than 50 years ago, this anti-oasis served as a federal penitentiary for hardened criminals, most of whom carried life sentences. Originally built as a military base during the Civil War, by 1934 it had become a legendary hard-core prison later celebrated in Hollywood films. In 1963, less than 30 years after opening, it was shut down due to costly operating expenses that nearly exhausted the penal budget in the State of California. During the relatively brief time of its existence, the penitentiary at Alcatraz had few indigenous resources. The entire water supply was contingent on a single rain tower that provided inmates with regulated rations of water for drinking and hygiene. All foodstuffs, along with cooking utensils, clothing, blankets, and medical supplies, were transported weekly by boat. Inadequate and unreliable, generators provided electricity for the entire prison complex. This was its sole source of energy. Internal heating was virtually non-existent.
The purpose of my visit there was to view a series of site-specific installations by Chinese artist, dissident, and polymath, Ai Weiwei. The venue for this exhibition was made possible through the efforts of independent curator Cheryl Haines, who worked directly with the artist in collaboration with the For-Site Foundation in San Francisco, which provided the sponsorship for the exhibition. In addition, Haines maintained close contact with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These two organizations were responsible for providing information on “prisoners of conscience” relative to a large installation, titled Trace, where portraits of 176 such prisoners were immortalized using 1.2 million plastic Lego bricks. Many of these were done outside China and outside the United States.
Alcatraz was accessioned as a national park in 1972, as Haines discovered, and is now operated within the public domain and therefore suggested the possibility of an exhibition space for Ai. Knowing the artist’s unrelenting concerns for human dignity and freedom of speech, she began a three-year project by setting forth the parameters whereby the artist could work on four interrelated installations. In that Ai is not permitted to travel outside of China because of his polemical position in opposition to what he believes are repressive policies instigated by his government, his persistent involvement with the exhibition occurred largely through telecommunication systems, including Skype. This was due to the fact that the artist has not been able to travel outside China since his incarceration for 81 days in 2011. He has no passport by which to travel.
While the exhibition was not a major work, it was an ambitious and moving one. It had its moments as in Trace and in the large fabric and bamboo Chinese dragon kite, With Winds. This was installed in the New Industries Building where Alcatraz prisoners once worked as they were scrutinized by armed guards. As one entered the downstairs corridor and walked the length of the “gun gallery,” one could view what many have conceded as the major work in this exhibition, given the English title Refraction. The work was an enormous assemblage in the shape of a bird’s wing constructed with recycled solar cookers used in Tibet, with accompanying cooking pots and kettles wedged between the panels. This suggested a possible solution — at very little cost — for ordinary people to live their lives without the burden of paying for electricity.
Walking from the New Industries Building (an ironic name given that it was built in the early 1940s largely for the purpose of making wartime accessories) down the slope away from where the actual prison cells were located, one got a glimpse of how this isolated island functioned in another era. The location offered an unusual but appropriate setting for Ai’s exhibition. The desire for freedom and the potential to live a qualitative life felt so utterly removed from these stark institutional premises.
Upon entering the port area, where the ferry loads visitors and tourists returning to San Francisco proper, the length of the sullen queues moved ever so slowly from the graffiti-ridden cement walls to an insipid barge. The mood was anything but euphoric. Later, I learned that there are seven times more prisoners incarcerated in the United States in comparison with any other country. This further incited the question as to how free Americans actually are, especially if they are not members of the white middle class.
This is the kind of question, I believe, that Ai’s “@Large” was seeking to raise on the grounds of Alcatraz in 2015.print