Magazine article National Parks

Art on the Rock

Magazine article National Parks

Art on the Rock

Article excerpt

Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei explores freedom and creative expression using Alcatraz as his canvas.

Some strange things are happening on Alcatraz.

Punk rock and poetry echo from vacant cells. Chipped sinks overflow with porcelain flowers, Legos cover a concrete floor, and a Technicolor dragon floats behind reinforced doors. In the main cell house, hundreds of free hands scrawl messages of hope to prisoners around the world.

Through April 2015, this stark outcropping in San Francisco Bay-a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area-is home to an installation by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Through sculpture, mixed media, and sound recordings, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz takes on an ambitious range of related themes: freedom of expression, imprisonment, the responsibilities of citizenship, and the role of transparent communication in a just society.

Ai Weiwei, 57, is no stranger to the subject matter. A vocal and irreverent critic of the Chinese government, Ai has been censored, surveilled, detained, and beaten by authorities in his home country. He has been prohibited from leaving China since 2011, following an 81-day stint in solitary confinement and subsequent conviction on a charge of tax evasion that he and his supporters say is trumped up.

The seven works in @ Large explore Ai's experiences criticizing authority, located within a global mosaic of activism. One installation offers pixelated portraits of political prisoners from 33 countries, including the United States, rendered in Legos pieced together on the floor. Next door, a suspended Chinese dragon kite snakes between pillars, panels in its body carrying quotations from imprisoned activists.

Elsewhere, sound recordings play in a dozen cells. Stepping into each cell, visitors are immersed in Nigerian musician Felá Kuti's signature AfroBeat, then Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking out against the Vietnam War, then a protest song by Russian punk band Pussy Riot. Out in the corridor, the dissonant recordings blend into a melee representing more than half a century of creative political expression from around the globe.

@ Large is intricately woven into its iconic prison setting, though the artist behind it has never set foot on the island. To bring the exhibit to life, Ai partnered with the FOR-SITE Foundation, a group promoting place-based art. Its director, Cheryl Haines, visited Ai in Beijing. She brought detailed notes on the size and feel of Alcatraz's salt-worn structures, which Ai relied on to create the exhibit. …

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