|Alcatraz Prison from the ferry|
I took this and all the other snaps in the post on my iPad.
It turned out that the art exhibit is not separate from the prison. In fact, Ai Weiwei has turned the whole prison complex into an artwork, by installing different kinds of artifacts throughout. Everyone who tours the prison sees the art, although they might not recognize it. In fact, the purpose of the show is to enrich the tour, and in a way, it substitutes for explanatory plaques or a live guide.
Ironically, Ai Weiwei has never been to Alcatraz: He is prohibited from leaving China because his art and his politically charged blog have caused constant aggravation to the government by calling attention to its corruption and disregard for human rights. For a few years he was even confined to his own home and studio because of some trumped up tax evasion charges. And the formative experience in his artistic development was being actually imprisoned for 81 days because of his protest activities. That experience is a regular theme of his art. As a former prisoner, he can imagine life at Alcatraz, and as a powerful artist he can project a message of hope across the vast ocean.
The basis for @Large is a shift in viewpoint from the punishment of gangsters who prey on society to the restrictions on freedom imposed on political activists like himself whose intent is to benefit society.
Ai makes the visitor trek all the way to the top of the 131-foot high island of rock for the first installation, no easy task as the road has quite an incline. That first building is called The New Industries Building; cooperative inmates were allowed to work here doing laundry for military bases around the Bay Area; they also made clothes, shoes, and furniture for government use.
The first thing you see as you enter is a traditional Chinese dragon kite. This is not a threatening dragon representing the ruler's power, but an energized, floating dragon that represents personal freedom. It creates feelings of joy and lightness, the perfect antidote for this horrid place. This installation is called "With Wind." The human spirit, meant to soar, is confined in a dingy laundry.
|The dragon symbolizes power in Chinese myth.|
Ai uses it to represent the power of personal freedom.
|The dragon's body is made of individual kites.|
Its winds around the ceiling of the dreary workroom.
|"…my words are well intended and innocent."|
-Le Quoc Quan
|Star-shaped kite with rising phoenixes.|
|"Trace" commemorates political activists with LEGO portraits.|
In "Trace," the artist wants us to work to understand his message. In the first place, the digitized images are hard to read; it's hard to tell who is who. And even after you get the image and figure out the name, you're still clueless because most of these figures are unfamiliar to Americans. After you have wandered around puzzled for awhile, finally you notice binders placed on lecterns along the edge of the display. The binders tell the background of each person represented. The images are grouped by region. All the Americans are grouped in the first panel. Once I knew who I was looking for, it was easier to pick out the images.
|Martin Luther King, Jr.|
|Is Edward Snowden a hero? Or a traitor?|
|Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition in Burma|
The next installation, called "Refraction," both expresses and creates total frustration. In the first place, it is necessary to climb a couple flights of stairs and wander without guidance along narrow hallways lined with bars and dirty windows to find it. And then the only way you can see it is through broken panes of grimy glass in the gun gallery. On a sunny morning, this is further impeded by reflections of the rocky wall outside.
|Refraction, seen through a broken pane of glass.|
Native rock of Alcatraz reflected in the remaining panes.
After you find your way out of this place, it is necessary to hike half-way down the rock, and then back up it on a hairpin-curved path, to get to the the Cellhouse. There are two installations in the Hospital there.
The one called "Illumination" is a sound experience. The two psychiatric observation rooms resonate with the sound of chanting, of Tibetans in one room and Native Americans in the other, drawing parallels between two groups that have been subject to cultural and political repression.
|Dan L. Smith listening to Tibetan chants.|
In "Blossom," Ai fills the utilitarian fixtures in several Hospital wards with fragile porcelain bouquets.
|These flowers are not manufactured and uniform.|
They are hand-formed and fantastical.
The Dining Hall of the Cellhouse has an installation called "Yours Truly." It is a follow-through on the LEGO piece depicting political activists. Its purpose is to allow visitors to send messages to the activists of their choice. But again, Ai doesn't make it easy. For each person, there is a postcard featuring some lovely graphic design. To figure out the correct postcard for the person you wish to address, you must go to a notebook that pairs the LEGO portrait with the appropriate postcard. I felt like sending a big FU to Snowden, but I let it pass.
On the other end of the Cellhouse, one block of cells features a sound installation called "Stay Tuned," consisting of music, poetry, and speeches by activists who have been detained for the expression of their beliefs. Selections vary from a 51-minute speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. to a 4 1/2-minute song by a Chilean singer named Victor Jara, to a 2-minute song called "Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away (Punk Prayer) by Pussy Riot from Russia.
|Cells with stools for listening.|
In this dead-end street
they smell your breath
lest, God forbid,
you've said I love you.
They sniff at your heart—these are strange times, my dear
—and they flog love
by the side of the road at the barrier.
Love must be hidden at home in the closet.
roasts over flames of lily and jasmine.
These are strange times, my dear.
The devil, drunk on victory, feasts at our funeral.
God must be hidden at home in the closet.
By the time I got through these art installations, I was well and truly ready to escape from Alcatraz, and so thankful that I could.
|At Alcatraz there are guard houses at every turn.|
No one ever escaped and lived to tell of it.
|Unlike the prisoners of yore, tourists have a built-in escape.|
There are other ways to look at Alcatraz. The historical angle: First established as a Union fort during the Civil War, and subsequently employed as a military prison and then as a high-security federal prison; after it was decommissioned in the 1960s, some Native American tribes occupied the island to call attention to the abuse and neglect of their people. The prison structures are so old and deteriorated by now that they have lost their threatening aspect; Alcatraz is like a ghost town. If you're interested in historical criminals, you can use your tour to study those who ended up here.
The natural angle: the island is a nearly solid chunk of rock, quite handsome, fine-grained stone. Surprisingly quite a lot of vegetation grows there in gardens established by families of the staff and now maintained by a corps of dedicated volunteers. There is no shoreline to explore; the island is a solid hunk of rock. Usually access is allowed to more extensive gardens, but when we were there, nesting seagulls had caused the path to be closed.
It's clear why the prison was finally abandoned in 1963. Although the site's isolation give it security, it would be difficult to maintain. Because of the solid rock, there was no sewage system. Water must have been a problem, and all supplies had to be brought in.
|The vegetation appears to grow right out of solid rock.|
|Cheerful sight in a grim place.|
There is no surcharge for the art exhibit. When you buy your ticket for the ferry it includes the usual prison tour with "@Large" thrown in. The optimal time to tour the prison would be during this exhibit, which is scheduled to close April 26, 2015.
To order tickets online (a good idea) go to this website: Alcatraz.
There is a parking lot on Bay Street near Pier 33, the one for the Alcatraz ferry, but parking costs $35 for the day, as much as the tour itself. You can pay with your charge card.
By the way I got this in-depth background from the website of the foundation which sponsored the exhibit: FOR-SITE. It includes photos of every installation, recordings of all the poetry, music, and speeches, and interpretive commentary. This exhibit is an example of conceptual art, which means that its meaning is more important that its appearance, so the more you learn, the more you appreciate it.
The exhibit enhances the prison tour so much that I propose it be kept in place indefinitely.