The extraordinary @Large Ai Weiwei exhibit is now part of the daily tour to Alcatraz by ferry (Pier 33). Ai Weiwei, 57 years old, whose art raises questions about freedom of expression and human rights, has served several prison sentences in China. This major installation invites viewer participation.
Several of the prison buildings (now in ruins reminiscent of burnt-out inner city neighborhoods or the aftermath of Hiroshima) exhibit a range of Ai Weiwei’s artwork with the most evocative being “With Wind” and “Trace”.
“With Wind” has an enormous dragon kite as its centerpiece, unfurled in sections of smaller kites, each representing a beautiful plant or bird as background for quotations from political activists, including Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden, and Ai himself. Scattered around the sides of the room are other kites decorated with stylized and poetic renderings of birds and flowers, indicating countries which restrict their citizens’ human rights and civil liberties, scattering hope to the wind.
“Trace” is an even more direct depiction of political imprisonment, giving it a human face: 175 faces to be exact. The viewer peers down at a field of 175 colorful and intricate LEGO images laid out across the floor: portraits of men and women from around the world—“heroes of our time”– who have been sentenced or exiled because of their beliefs or affiliations. Most were still incarcerated like Ai Weiwei at the time “Trace” was made.
The sheer number of political prisoners, arranged by continent, is overwhelming but the intricacy of the construction is also. Each image was crafted by hand from LEGO pieces, some of which are the tiniest ones LEGO makes. (Some portions of the artwork were assembled in the artist’s studio, while others were fabricated to the artist’s specifications by more than 80 volunteers in San Francisco.) A binder for each geographical section summarizes the charges brought by the government against each detainee. A beautiful tribute to Martin Luther King is included.
The exhibit continues at Alcatraz until April 26, 2015 but is sold out through the end of January. Be forewarned: the map and signage for the exhibition collections is confusing so allow enough time for walking to this art space, an exploration of what constitutes liberty and justice. For Ai Weiwei, art is an act of conscience.