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Ai Weiwei explores human rights and freedom of expression in exhibition at Alcatraz
Visitors look at Ai Weiwei's "With Wind" installation at the @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz on September 24, 2014 in San Francisco, California. The new @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz will open to the public on September 27th and features a series of seven site-specific installations by artist Ai Weiwei in four locations on Alcatraz Island. The exhibition explores human rights and freedom of expression through large-scale sculpture, sound, and mixed-media works. The show runs through April 2015. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- Featuring seven new sculpture, sound, and mixed-media works by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz explores human rights and freedom of expression in the context of this iconic historic site. Installed across four locations on Alcatraz and on view from September 27, 2014, through April 26, 2015, the exhibition is inspired by the island’s layered history as a 19th-century military fortress, notorious federal penitentiary, significant site of Native American history, and now one of America’s most visited national parks. Ai’s artworks in @Large raise urgent questions about the social implications of incarceration and the definitions of liberty, justice, individual rights, and personal responsibility as interpreted through the lens of the artist’s personal experiences. The exhibition is organized by the FOR-SITE Foundation in partnership with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

The site-specific installations are located in the two-story New Industries Building where “privileged” inmates were permitted to work; the Hospital main ward and psychiatric observation cells; A Block, the only cellblock not remodeled since the military prison was constructed in the early 20th century; and the Dining Hall. With the exception of the Dining Hall, these spaces are not usually open to visitors, but all will be open to the public throughout the run of the exhibition. The @Large exhibition is included as part of general Alcatraz admission.

For Ai, the inspiration for the exhibition is not simply an exploration of social issues or artistic themes; it is rooted in the reality of his life. In spring 2011, Ai was detained by the Chinese government for 81 days on charges of tax evasion. Following his release, he was prohibited from leaving Beijing for one year, and he is still forbidden to travel outside of China. Because Ai could not visit Alcatraz, he developed the works in his Beijing studio with support from the presenting partners, Bay Area volunteers, and Amnesty International, which provided research material.

“One of the qualities that first struck me about Ai’s practice is how profoundly he explores the confluence of art and the built environment and how aware he is of the impact his work has on the viewer—making our collaboration with him ideal for a project focused on exploring place, history, and the human condition,” said Cheryl Haines, founding executive director of the FOR-SITE Foundation and curator of @Large. “The balance of content and materiality that exists in his works at once awes us with its grace and beauty and challenges and critiques our ways of thinking—in a manner that we hope will catalyze a critical public dialogue about human rights and the many other issues that Ai explores through his art and activism.”

The works in @Large balance political impact with aesthetic elegance, presenting the viewer with objective information and evoking a deeper understanding of underlying themes. Images of birds and wings metaphorically invoke freedom and creativity, while research-based works keep the visitor grounded in specific realities. Several of the installations directly reference the experiences of individuals deprived of their rights for actively expressing their beliefs.

“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,” said Ai Weiwei.

The seven installations commissioned by the FOR-SITE Foundation for @Large include:

• With Wind, New Industries Building: This large-scale installation, located in the building once used for prison labor, features a contemporary version of the traditional Chinese “dragon kite,” a large multipart kite handmade by Chinese artisans in collaboration with Ai’s studio. Scattered around the room are other kites decorated with stylized birds and flowers, which speak to the natural environs of Alcatraz Island—an important bird habitat—and reference 30 nations with serious records of restricting their citizens’ human rights and civil liberties. The position of the kites—trapped inside a building, unable to fly—suggests the powerful contradiction of freedom and restriction.

• Trace, New Industries Building: In this installation, the viewer is confronted with a field of more than 175 colorful portraits laid out across an expanse of the floor. Each portrait—intricately constructed from LEGO® bricks—represents an individual who has been imprisoned or exiled because of his or her beliefs, actions, or affiliations. Fabricated by hand in the artist’s Beijing studio and by a team of volunteers in San Francisco, the installation gives a human face to political detainment.

• Refraction, New Industries Building: Using the imagery of flight to evoke the tension between freedom and confinement, this monumental installation—weighing more than five tons—is modeled after a bird’s wing. The artwork is composed of reflective panels originally used on Tibetan solar cookers. Located on the lower floor and viewed from the gun gallery above, the installation positions the visitor in the role of the prison guard, implicating the viewer in a complex structure of power and control.

• Stay Tuned, A Block: An intimate and evocative sound installation, Stay Tuned invites visitors into 12 individual cells in A Block, where they can sit and listen to spoken words, poetry, and music by people who have been imprisoned for the creative expression of their beliefs—as well as works created under conditions of incarceration. Each cell features a different recording, such as works by the Russian punk band Pussy Riot and the South African anti-apartheid activists Robben Island Singers. The work prompts introspection and understanding of the power of the human voice as a vehicle for connection and communication in a setting of enforced isolation and silence.

• Illumination, Hospital (Psychiatric Observation Cells): The austere, tiled psychiatric observation cells, used for the isolation and observation of mentally ill inmates, resonate with chanting recorded at a Buddhist monastery and a traditional song of the Hopi tribe. Men from the Hopi tribe were among the first prisoners of conscience held on Alcatraz. The installation of chants in one of the island’s most haunting sites raises an unexpected analogy between subjugated peoples and those who have been classified as mentally ill—both often dismissed, deprived of rights, confined, and observed. Illumination speaks to the profound role of chanting as a source of comfort, strength, and identity under severe circumstances.

• Blossom, Hospital: With intricately detailed encrustations of ceramic flowers, Ai transforms the utilitarian fixtures (sinks, toilets, and tubs) in several hospital ward cells and medical offices into fantastical, fragile porcelain bouquets. The profusion of flowers rendered in a cool and brittle material could be understood as an ironic reference to China’s famous Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, a brief period of government tolerance of free expression, immediately followed by a severe crackdown against dissent.

• Yours Truly, Dining Hall: In this interactive work, visitors are encouraged to write postcards addressed to some of the prisoners represented in Trace. The cards are adorned with images of birds and plants representing the nations where the prisoners are held. Ai has spoken of the deep feeling of isolation that afflicts incarcerated people and the fear that their causes have been forgotten. Yours Truly is a direct response to these concerns—serving as a reminder that their voices and causes have not been forgotten, and as a springboard for visitors to engage in a global conversation about the responsibilities that we all bear as members of the international community.

To support dialogue and interaction on the exhibition’s themes, both on site and online, @Large features a team of Art Guides positioned at each of the installations. The Art Guides will provide additional background about the creation of the works, the history of the locations, and the themes of the exhibition, and will use social media to communicate about the experience of the exhibition to those who are unable to visit Alcatraz.

“We encourage visitors to delve deeper into the emotional content, human values, and personal stories that have shaped our unique national park landscapes,” said Parks Conservancy President and CEO Greg Moore. “@Large reflects the multilayered history of Alcatraz as a place of both political and criminal imprisonment, and opens a timely exploration of the meaning of freedom and self-expression in the world today.”

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