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Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz attracts more than half a million international visitors since opening in September 2014
A visitor examines "With Wind," an installation by Chinese artist Ai WeiWei's that is part of @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz on September 27, 2014 in San Francisco, California. The piece, located in the former Federal prison, features kites meant to convey the contrast between freedom and restriction. AFP PHOTO / NOAH BERGER.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- In the five months since it opened, artist Ai Weiwei’s acclaimed exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz has attracted more than half a million visitors from across the world. Organized by the FOR-SITE Foundation in partnership with the National Park Service and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the exhibition features seven sculpture, sound, and mixed-media works installed across four locations on Alcatraz. Inspired by the island’s potent and layered history, the exhibition serves as a platform to engage with some of the most complex and pressing social issues of our time.

The works in @Large balance aesthetic elegance with political impact, raising questions about human rights and freedom of expression that have resonated deeply with visitors. The most directly interactive installation in the exhibition, Yours Truly encourages visitors to the penitentiary Dining Hall to write postcards addressed to current prisoners of conscience. As of February 1, 2015, FOR-SITE, in collaboration with Amnesty International, has sent nearly 50,000 postcards to prisoners in more than 20 countries, with the highest percentages going to those incarcerated in the United States (12.3 percent), India (8.7percent), and Vietnam (8.1 percent). Art Guides positioned at the installation have noted that many audience members have acknowledged learning about prisoners in their home countries for the first time through information provided in the exhibition.

Postcards have included notes of kindness, beautiful illustrations, and personal communications by visitors across ages, ethnicities, nationalities, and backgrounds. Ai created Yours Truly in response to the feeling of isolation that afflicts incarcerated people and the fear that their causes have been forgotten. The families of prisoners who have received messages from Yours Truly visitors have testified to the work’s powerful effect. Sukanya Pruksakasemsuk, wife of Thai prisoner of conscience Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, confirmed that her husband has received “thousands” of Yours Truly postcards and wrote, “I really appreciated what your foundation has done for my husband and the others who have been suffering and fighting for their faith. Somyot has passed his regards to all of you who made his days in prison brightening.” In Egypt, Mostafa Maher, the brother of prisoner Ahmed Maher, has received postcards on his sibling’s behalf. Ahmed is not allowed access to paper or writing implements, so Mostafa shows him images of the postcards on his cell phone when he visits Ahmed in prison.

“Part of the vision for @Large was to put real faces and voices to the complex issue of incarceration used as a tool to restrict freedom of expression. When Ai first conceived the exhibition, he wanted to shed a greater light on the widespread nature of this societal problem,” said Cheryl Haines, executive director of the FOR-SITE Foundation and exhibition curator. “For me, to have visitors reconsider their understanding of human rights and acknowledge the struggle of so many would have made this exhibition a success; to have this number of people engage with the exhibition and Alcatraz as a site of historic importance is more than we could have imagined.”

The exhibition has also supported a growing understanding of the history of Alcatraz and extended engagement with the National Park Service and the Art in the Parks program.

“The National Park Service helps connect people with the stories of humanity that have developed this nation and the world,” said Golden Gate National Recreation Area General Superintendent Frank Dean. “Sometimes it is their own story they have lost connection to, but often it is a story or part of history not otherwise talked about, like this one that Ai Weiwei has brought to life through his work. As the National Park Service prepares for our centennial, we look at partnerships like this one to help keep these areas relevant and part of the American dialogue.”

“@Large takes on themes that are relevant to the history of Alcatraz in a way that has spurred a conversation about the world we live in now,” said Greg Moore, president and CEO of the Parks Conservancy. “We are especially pleased to have experienced a 65 percent increase in visitors coming from the Bay Area, and shed light upon the island in a new way to local communities.”

During the run of the exhibition, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the Crissy Field Center, in coordination with the FOR-SITE Foundation, have mounted the @ccess Alcatraz program, which supports outreach to underserved schools and community organizations across the Bay Area by providing 7,000 discounted tickets to Alcatraz and @Large. Thus far, the program has facilitated visits to @Large for almost 5,000 children and adults from 27 schools and 65 community organizations, including Lighthouse for the Blind; Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice; and the Bayview YMCA.

Social media has also played an important role in connecting visitors with exhibition content, providing a platform for them to engage with Ai, the Art Guides, the organizing partners, and one another, all facilitated by wireless installed on the island at the request of the artist. The hashtag #AiWeiweiAlcatraz has been used more than 5,000 times by users on Twitter and Instagram, and Ai himself has been actively reposting visitor comments and photos on his widely followed feeds. Among the many photos circulating on Instagram are images of visitors who have brought their own LEGO bricks to the exhibition to create small-scale replicas of the LEGO portraits in Trace, an installation in the New Industries Building depicting 176 portraits of prisoners of conscience.

@Large will close to the public on April 26, 2015. A limited number of Early Bird tickets and special access tours are still available from the Parks Conservancy. The exhibition is included as part of general admission to Alcatraz sold by Alcatraz Cruises.

@Large raises 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 Ai Weiwei’s personal experiences. 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 have previously been restricted to visitors, but are open to the public throughout the run of the exhibition.

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.

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