@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

Believe it or not, after living in San Francisco for nearly 8 months (time flies!) I had still yet to visit Alcatraz. One of the top tourist destinations of the city, I figured I would wind up going with one of the many visitors we’ve had stay with us. No dice. So when a few weeks ago I saw a post about a new Ai Weiwei exhibit opening in the notorious prison, I knew my time had come.

For those who are unfamiliar, Ai Weiwei is a celebrated Chinese mixed-media artist whose work is deeply rooted in social, political and cultural issues. He’s been openly critical about the Chinese government’s stance on democracy and human rights which has led to him being harassed and imprisoned. He is not allowed to travel without official permission. He has become a symbol of sorts for the struggle of human rights in China.

Further motivation to go: I missed Ai Weiwei’s installation in Toronto at Nuit Blanche 2013, but perhaps a few of you saw ‘Forever Bicycles’? Incredible stuff.

The artist’s works and what they represent made this exhibit the kind of thing that even if I had been to Alcatraz, I’d go back again just to see this.

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Early morning ferry

We started our tour in the Industries Building where three of the art installations were in place. This is what we saw…

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“With Wind”

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“With Wind”

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“With Wind”

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“With Wind”

"Refraction"

“Refraction” seen through the windows of a gun gallery.

"Refraction"

“Refraction”

"Trace"

“Trace” features the faces of 175 political prisoners constructed with 1.1 million Lego pieces

"Trace" features the faces of 175 political prisoners constructed with 1.1 million Lego pieces.

“Trace”

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Random fixtures at the back of the room

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Old signage

Next we entered the cell block which is where we partook in the regular audio tour of the prison. The remaining art installations were incorporated into this portion of the prison.

Typical cell

Typical cell

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Solitary confinement, aka the hole.

The infirmary was arguably the creepiest part of the tour. Something about antique medical equipment...

The infirmary was arguably the creepiest part of the tour. Something about antique medical equipment…

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“Blossom”

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The same people who constructed the porcelain seeds in Ai Weiwei’s piece “Sunflower Seeds” created these porcelain blossoms which fit perfectly into Alcatraz’s fixtures.

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“Blossom”

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“Blossom”

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“Blossom”

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“Blossom”

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“Blossom”

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Bath tub in the infirmary

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So creepy!

Kitchen knives went missing occasionally. When they did, it was easy to figure out.

The dining hall in the prison was arguably the most dangerous place. Kitchen knives went missing occasionally. When they did, it was easy to figure out because where they hung was painted.

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The view from the prison is pretty incredible. Prisoners were reminded everyday of what they had lost.

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This photo didn’t do the beautiful view justice!

The spray paint here is a reminder of the Native American occupation of the island from November 1969 - June 1971.

The paint on the water tower (and around the grounds) is a reminder of the Native American occupation of the island from November 1969 – June 1971.

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The door where staff would enter and check-in before work.

Ai Weiwei has never been to Alcatraz. Rather the concepts for the exhibit were developed between a coordinator based in the US and Ai Weiwei. Communication and lots of trips made everything a reality. The entire installation was crafted in China and installed in the US. Given that Alcatraz is a historical building, restrictions on how art was displayed made things a tad challenging for all those involved.

There was also Wi-Fi near all of the installations which isn’t a normal part of Alcatraz. Apparently Ai Weiwei is a huge fan of social media and loves the idea of people sharing their experiences with the art online. I like his style ;)

Both the cell block audio tour and the art made for a great Saturday outing!

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