“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
One can imagine the confusion on the faces of thousands of tourists in search of Al Capone’s infamous prison cell being instead confronted by an elaborately oversized and dazzlingly multicoloured Chinese dragon kite. On September 27th of this year, China’s most controversial artist opened his latest show in America’s most notorious prison. Ai Weiwei’s series of installations for the FOR-SITE Foundation at Alcatraz, San Francisco, seek to inspire not only the keen gallery-goer but the millions of tourists the site attracts every year. Weiwei’s anti-authoritarian art lies at the confluence of art and activism, and since his detainment by Chinese authorities in 2011, he has been particularly sensitive to the subject of imprisonment. Although released with no formal charges, Weiwei’s passport has been revoked, and his movements are monitored by police daily. His inability to leave China has not, however, entirely restricted the dissemination of his artwork, and has allowed him to channel the psychology of entrapment into his latest works installed via remote instructions from across the Pacific.
The history of Alcatraz as a high-security military and federal prison whose inmates faced maximum security with minimum privilege renders it an appropriate space for a debate about the dehumanization of imprisonment. Although many of its prisoners were guilty of robbery, kidnapping, and tax evasion to name but a few, Weiwei’s interest lies with those imprisoned for their beliefs, such as those imprisoned for their the conscientious objections to the first world war. The installations, however, resonate far beyond the specific history of Alcatraz to issues of human rights and political imprisonment worldwide. Addressing the hypocrisy and injustice of incarceration through images of freedom and entrapment, Weiwei aims to address what happens when people lose the ability to communicate freely.
After a ferry ride across deceptively calm grey waters towards the hostile rocky island of Alcatraz, the viewer’s entrance to the prison is immediately interrupted by Ai Weiwei’s first installation, ‘With Wind’. Looking up at this colossal Chinese dragon that winds through the stark concrete pillars of the New Industries Building, one notices its eyes made of the twitter logo and a body covered with quotations from activists who have been imprisoned, including Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden, and even Ai Weiwei himself, whose own statement is that “Every one of us is a potential convict”. Walking beneath this mythical paper creation, the viewer is next led to look down to the reality of political prisoners across the globe. Situated on the floor at the rear of the New Industries Building, ‘Trace’ consists of 176 lego portraits of prisoners living and dead. While some of these prisoners are recognisable, including figures such as Martin Luther King, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning, most are foreign and unknown to a U.S. audience. Their pixellated lego appearance mimics the few grainy publicly available photographs that exist of these people, and acknowledges the vague knowledge of their existence in the public mind.
Next up is ‘Refraction’, a large bird created from found metal objects such as teapots and saucepans, whose confinement can only be seen through small windows from a distance. This restriction of both the bird and one’s viewpoint begins the creation of a feeling of entrapment for the viewer. Weiwei’s greatest identification with the physical and psychological realities of entrapment, however, are created by his powerful audio installations. ‘Stay Tuned’ brings the viewer to Cell Block A to hear the sounds of political resistance from a cement cell, as one sits on one of Weiwei’s specially designed steel stools to hear music, spoken word, and poetry either created by artists in prison or inspired by entrapment. These sound clips include a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. condemning the Vietnam war, and the Pussy Riot’s ‘Virgin Mary: Put Putin Away (Punk Prayer)’, and are a testament to those who find power and voice in hopeless moments.
Beyond this experience of the physical confinement of political activists, ‘Illumination’ brings the viewer into the psychiatric observation rooms of the hospital ward. Within these eery isolation rooms, chants of Buddhist monks and of the Hopi tribe reverberate off the cold cell walls, creating not only a physical but a psychological experience of suffocating entrapment. Moving beyond these cells towards the bathrooms of the hospital wards, the viewer is confronted by an unusual transformation of utilitarian fixtures into bouquets for a multiplicity of tiny porcelain flowers. Such an image of frailty amidst concrete brutality may be a reference to General Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, which saw a brief encouragement of free expression immediately followed by a brutal crackdown on dissent, later admitted as being used to “entice the snakes out of their caves”.
Weiwei’s juxtaposition of a site so associated with confinement with artistic creativity raises the issue of the importance of communication and expression in the face of oppression. ‘Yours Truly’, his final word at Alcatraz, is not only a visual and aural experience for the viewer, but an interactive one. Consisting of thousands of pre-addressed postcards to those prisoners depicted in ‘Trace’, this final interactive work encourages visitors to communicate messages of encouragement to these political prisoners. The installations end not without hope or effect, but with an inspiration to action which brings Weiwei’s art to the realm of activism. His aim is to ensure the remembrance of prisoners of conscience from around the world, and to let them know they aren’t forgotten, reminding us of “the purpose of art, which is the fight for freedom.”
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