As part of our ongoing educational programming, we invited a group of our clients and colleagues on a guided tour of the exhibit @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Our group was a diverse mix of design and architecture professionals, developers, collectors and curators. As with our other events, we encourage a dialogue amongst our guests that enriches the experience of looking at and thinking about art. This exhibit specifically brought up discussion around basic human rights, the role and responsibility of individuals to make social change, art in public places and the logistics of mounting an exhibit of this scale and international importance.
With Wind is a rendition of a traditional Chinese dragon kite and is meant to be a symbol for personal freedom. Ai Weiwei designed the imagery and then employed kite makers to fabricate the piece. The artwork features stylized renderings of birds and plants that are icons for nations with records of violating human rights and civil liberties.
Trace gives the global phenomenon of political detainment a human face – or many faces. In portraits constructed from LEGO bricks, Ai represents more than 175 people from around the world who have been detained because of their beliefs or affiliations. The artist collaborated with Amnesty International and spent 7 months compiling the list of detainees. The people represented here are the same prisoners that you can write a postcard to later in the exhibit. In contrast to the ‘worst of the worst’ famous Alcatraz prisoners, the prisoners here are non-violent people who have lost their freedom for expressing ideas.
Refraction is based on the structure of a bird’s wing, expanded to imposing scale. The wing’s feathers are reflective panels used as solar cookers in Tibet, a region that has long struggled under Chinese rule. Like With Wind, this piece uses imagery of flight to evoke the tension between freedom and confinement. The sculpture’s enormous bulk and weight (more than 5 tons), along with it being installed on the lower level, emphasizes it as earthbound. Viewing it from the narrow gun gallery gives the visitor a position of authority, further illustrating it’s caged restriction. Also interspersed throughout the sculpture are pots and tea kettles, symbols of self preservation and basic human rights.
Stay Tuned is a sound installation featuring music, poetry, and spoken words by people who have been detained for the expression of their beliefs. Inside the cell the sounds of speech and singing create a powerful contrast to the isolation and enforced silence of imprisonment. From 1933-1937 Alcatraz was a silent prison and inmates would try to communicate through pipes and by leaving notes in library books. Ai has said ‘The most terrible thing about jail is not the treatment you receive, but the isolation.’
Blossom transforms the utilitarian fixtures in several hospital ward cells and medical offices with fantastical, fragile porcelain bouquets. Like With Wind, this work draws on and transforms natural imagery as well as traditional Chinese arts. For Ai, flowers are a universal symbol for both freedom and remembrance. In 1956 during the Hundred Flowers Campaign the Communist Party of China encouraged citizens to openly express their opinions (let a hundred flowers bloom) which became a means of entrapment for ‘enemies of state’. Ai created the #aiflowers Twitter hashtag and invited people everywhere to make paper flowers memorializing children killed in the 2008 earthquake. Beginning in 2013, Ai puts fresh flowers everyday in his bike basket outside his Beijing studio until he gets his passport back. Fitting the bouquets into the sinks, tubs, and toilets references self-preservation, cleanliness and basic human rights. Also of note is when Ai’s family was in exile, his father was forced to scrub toilets.
Yours Truly aims to encourage a global conversation, letting prisoners of conscience know that they are not forgotten. You are invited to choose a postcard addressed to an individual prisoner and write any message you wish. The postcards are addressed to the same prisoners featured in Trace, there is a binder with their stories on the table. Every evening @Large volunteers collect the postcards and mail them. With this piece Ai further promotes communication. Ai says that this piece, along with Stay Tuned, are most closely related to his experience of being incarcerated and his isolation from communication.