“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
I’m saving my photos of Alcatraz for another day; first I’d like to share some images of @Large, a series of site-specific installations by Beijing-based artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, on view on the island through April 2015.
Above and below, With Wind consists of a large paper dragon and smaller kites, all produced by Chinese artisans whose kite-building craft has been diminishing with China’s modernization.
Quotes by imprisoned or exiled activists include one from Weiwei himself — “Every one of us is a potential convict.”
The smaller kites represent birds that are symbols for nations known to restrict human rights and civil liberties:
Trace is a group of 176 portraits of people who have been imprisoned or exiled because of their beliefs or affiliations. Rendered in LEGO and assembled as large groupings of faces across the floor in an immense room, they can be examined closely, right down to their pixel-like building blocks:
Each portrait tells a story. For instance, Indonesia’s Filep Karma is a prominent advocate for the right of the Papuan people. He was charged with treason and imprisoned, and was nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize:
Refraction can only be glimpsed through broken windows. The sculpture is modeled after birds’ wings and made out of reflective panels originally used on solar cookers in Tibet.
Viewing this enormous, yet somehow delicate work, from the elevated and cramped gun gallery in the New Industries Building, the viewer feels like a prison guard, watching over a trapped bird:
In the prison’s hospital, Blossom is a series of installations in toilets, sinks and tubs. Delicate massings of porcelain flowers seem to grow out of these utilitarian fixtures. A guard watching over them speculated that the drains represented the only way to freedom for these prisoners, and that the freedom of the flowers can’t be contained, so they grow within these cells.
Of course Alcatraz Island is the site of the infamous prison, which is why Ai Weiwei’s work is the perfect companion to touring the complex. It’s also a bird refuge; in fact, “alcatraces” is Spanish for “seabirds.” So, Weiwei’s references to birds in his installations are perfectly apt and, in this environment of human confinement and isolation, the birds’ freedom of flight can be thought to represent the ultimate right to self-determination and self-expression.
I’m not sharing three installations here: Yours Truly, which is a postcard-writing campaign to some of the prisoners on view in Trace, and the sound pieces Illumination and Stay Tuned. @Large is up until 26 April 2015. It’s a series of chilling site-specific installations that really deserve to be seen in person, not just in photos.