Alcatraz Island, home to one of America’s most notorious prisons, is an unlikely space to host an art exhibit. However, the now closed penitentiary, located off the coast of San Francisco, is being perfectly utilized by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei for his latest show, “@Large.” Running through April 26, 2015, Ai’s latest project is designed to send a message about freedom of expression and human rights. Broken down into several exhibits scattered all around Alcatraz Island, “@Large” spotlights those that have been imprisoned or exiled for their beliefs, highlighting 20th– and 21st-century figureheads, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Russian rockers Pussy Riot, and Chelsea Manning, the United States Army soldier who was convicted of leaking classified documents to the public.
Ai focuses on his outspoken subjects in seven different displays, that run through both Alcatraz’s old cell block and the park’s New Industries Building. To emphasize the power of speech and singing, he had his team set up a sound installation (“Stay Tuned”) on Alcatraz’s “A Block” and filled the sinks and tubs in the cell house’s hospital with porcelain bouquets (“Blossom”). (Ai’s team completed the physical installations on his behalf, as the artist and vocal critic of the Chinese government is not permitted to travel outside of China.) To encourage global conversation, the “Yours Truly” portion of the exhibit encourages visitors to send pre-addressed postcards to current prisoners, who are deprived of the ability to speak for themselves.
The most visual part of “@Large” installation, “With Wind,” fills Alcatraz’s New Industries Building with a colorful twist on a traditional Chinese dragon kite, while “Trace,” created out of Lego bricks, represents over 175 people who have been detained for their beliefs or affiliations.
Ai’s exhibit carries a particularly timely heavy weight, as demonstrators currently protest in Hong Kong against the Chinese government, and is a perfect marriage of art and political statement. The departure pier for Alcatraz is right next to the pier where cruise ships dock, making “@Large” a perfect quick visit for any Bay area traveler as they stroll alongside the water.
“@Large Ai Wei Wei on Alcatraz” is on display at Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, until April 26, 2015.