Having visited Alcatraz Island off San Francisco as a historical site, the prospect of returning brought back my bored experience of my first and only trip there.
Yet, the flashy Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was an important to warrant such a return for his special exhibition, especially designed for the site: @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. According to the official website, "in this exhibition of new works created specifically for Alcatraz, Ai responds to the island’s layered legacy as a 19th-century military fortress, a notorious federal penitentiary, a site of Native American heritage and protest, and now one of America’s most visited national parks. Revealing new perspectives on Alcatraz, the exhibition raises questions about freedom of expression and human rights that resonate far beyond this particular place."
Naturally, the desolate setting created a unique atmosphere, a perfect foil for these deeply political art installations.
The exhibition was engaging but didn't have the depth and breadth one expected from this artist; perhaps, his inability to visit the site contributed to this defect.
The exhibition played on the theme of political imprisonment, an experience the provocative artist had endured in the hand of Chinese authority, as befitting to this notorious prison island. The exhibition had six sections: With Wind, Trace, Refraction, Stay Tuned, Illumination, Blossom, and Yours Truly.
In the order of the presentation, below are some impressions I recorded during the tour.
1) With Wind: a gaudily colorful dragon kite with slogans of free speech written on some sections of the dragon, and some smaller kites, decorated with images consisted with tiny handcuffs. Interesting concept but a bit obscure.
2) Trace: Lego portraits of imprisoned dissents in the world - including Aung San Suu Kyi, Liu Xiaobo, Edward Snowdon, and Chelase Manning. Interesting concept but the execution was not so interesting. Artwork lacked crafts often left less an indelible impression on me.
3) Refraction: featured an enormous metal wing - shining and strong, yet elegant; promised of freedom, yet under guard. This was my favorite part of this exhibition.
4) Stay Tuned: "This sound installation occupies a series of twelve cells in A Block. Inside each cell, visitors are invited to sit and listen to spoken words, poetry, and music by people who have been detained for the creative expression of their beliefs, as well as works made under conditions of incarceration."
Below was one of those cells - Pussy Riot (Russian) - Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away (Punk Prayer):
5) Illumination: another sound installation: "a pair of tiled chambers in the Hospital once used for the isolation and observation of mentally ill inmates — resonates with the sound of Tibetan and Native American chanting in this austere and moving installation." Sound installation never really worked for me. I was able to connect to "Stay Tuned" somewhat but not this one.
6) Blossom: ceramic flowers filled the sinks, toilets, and tubs that were once used by hospitalized prisoners.
I didn't find the work moving; rather, I found the image of the peeled paint and the juxtaposition of light and shadow riveting.
7) Yours Truly: postcards completed by visitors.
I felt the experience both moving and theatrical, and self-congratulatory. I am very mixed with this experience. Would these postcards visitors wrote to political prisoners really be delivered? Besides making visitors feel good about ourselves, what purpose did it serve? I wasn't sure, though I did write a postcard to Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economist serving a life sentence in China, on separatism-related charges.
Most poignant of this island was its magnificent view of San Francisco and its bay: