Ai Wei Wei @ Large at Alcatraz (originally published in Arte magazine)

@ Large: Ai Wei Wei on Alcatraz

By DeWitt Cheng

In the 1950s, the cultural critic Alfred Kazin predicted that art would decline in cultural importance and that it would be regarded art with the same interest as, say, shopping or sports. It would forsake any claim to transcendent meaning.  That prophecy seems in some ways to have been prescient. Contemporary art, democratized and globalized, now enjoys a mass-market prominence undreamt of in Kazin’s day, but the esthetic epiphanies and moral authority of the past were largely jettisoned. 

But not completely. The art of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei demonstrates that conceptually based art can be beautifully crafted, accessible to a large audience, and extraordinarily successful. Even more noteworthy is Ai’s focus on moral and political issues, a stance that links him more appropriately to crusading novelists like Zola and Solzhenitsyn than to the darlings of the international art circuit—or, rather, the other darlings, for Ai is surely a star of the first rank both in spite of and because of his inveterate insubordination.

The son of a prominent Chinese poet who supported the 1949 Communist revolution but later ran afoul of it, Ai grew up in poverty and disgrace—and, literally, a hole in the ground—in remote, freezing Heilongjiang province.  He once said, “I wouldn’t say I’ve become more radical. I was born radical.” As a young artist in post-Mao Beijing, Ai helped to inaugurate change in an art world dominated by party orthodoxy and careerism both before and after his decade in New York City, promulgating the avant-gardist ideas of Duchamp, Warhol and Rauschenberg in capitalist but still undemocratic China. Ai’s impassioned protests over the deaths of five thousand schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (which he attributed to official corruption resulting in “tofu-dregs schoolhouses”) earned the artist a severe beating by police, causing a nearly fatal cerebral hemorrhage and, in 2011, a punitive three-month detention, accompanied with prosecution for tax evasion, bigamy, and spreading pornography. He was also forbidden to travel outside of China, a draconian punishment for this internationally known artist.

His San Francisco gallerist, Cheryl Haines, stepped in at this point, beginning the massive project that became @Large. Haines’s FOR-SITE Foundation had previously partnered with the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy on art installations (including one by Ai) set in other public properties, so when Ai asked for help in getting his work abroad, Haines thought of Alcatraz, the boat-shaped island in San Francisco Bay famed for its Civil War fortress and military prison and, after 1933, an escape-proof federal penitentiary housing infamous criminals like Al Capone. Less known but thematically relevant to @Large are Alcatraz’s detentions of Communists, anarchists, wartime conscientious objectors, and Hopi Indians who challenged government attempts to Americanize and deracinate their children. A picturesquely decrepit tourist attraction since its decommissioning in the 1960s, occupied by American Indian activists from 1969 to 1971, Alcatraz was an inspired choice. With its haunting, grim carceral history, embodied in rusted bars, shattered windows, crumbling concrete, and peeling paint, all contrasting with a breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay, The Rock serves as a poignant backdrop for Ai’s seven installations, all concerned with the issues of freedom, authority and human rights, not just in China, but around the world, i.e., at large—and all planned remotely, from Beijing, and installed by volunteers.

The seven installations are dispersed throughout two buildings on the island: the New Industries Building, a long warehouse built in 1939 where prisoners made clothing and did laundry overseen by guards patrolling an elevated “gun gallery”; and, uphill, at the top and center of Alcatraz, the Cellhouse, the largest concrete structure in the world when it was built in 1912, with artworks in its Dining Hall, Hospital Wing, Psychiatric Observation Rooms, and Cell Block A.

With Wind, Trace and Refraction are installed in New Industries. With Wind is a large group of handmade paper, bamboo and silk kites suspended from the ceiling, in the traditional dragon, bird and hexagon shapes, bearing screenprinted digital designs of flowers and birds, along with the symbols of nations with questionable human rights records; interspersed with the festive stylized patterns on the disk-like ‘vertebrae’ of the hundred-foot-long coiled dragon are quotations about freedom of expression from Edward Snowden, Ai Weiwei and others. Trace is a group of portraits of 175 political dissidents from 31 countries taken from Amnesty International records; the portraits, derived from pixelated photographs and executed in colorful LEGO blocks in Beijing and San Francisco, lie scattered in six clusters or zones, resembling, from a distance, baseball cards or stamps—an honor roll of dissenters accompanied by brief explanations of their offenses in binders at several podiums; included are the anti-Putin protester Andrei Barabanov, the CIA leaker John Kiriakou, the Iranian physicist Omid Kokabee,  the Tibetan singer Lolo, the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and the Tibetan Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, named by the Dalai Lama as his successor, who disappeared in 1995 at age six. Refraction is a monumental sculpture composed of curved polished-metal plates or shields, originally manufactured for Tibetan solar cookers, attached to a steel framework; taking the shape of a gigantic wing, the piece—which is not accessible to visitors, and is visible only in glimpses from small shattered windows in the gun gallery above—has a grandly absurdist quality, ponderously earthbound yet glittering and majestic.

The remaining pieces in the Cellblock building are less spectacular as autonomous art objects, deriving some effect from their appalling settings, but they are no less forceful as pieces of engaged political art. Blossom comprises a number of onsite plumbing fixtures that have been filled with scores of intricate handmade porcelain flowers that transform these porcelain sinks, tubs, toilets and urinals into humble memorials. In Illumination, the observation rooms used for mentally ill inmates are filled with recorded chanting by displaced Tibetan Buddhists and deracinated Arizona Hopi Indians, both groups marginalized by dominant majorities. Yours Truly, located in the Dining Hall, is a collection of postcards that have been addressed to political prisoners; visitors may select one or more from the racks and sit down at long writing tables to send messages of condolence or support. Finally, Stay Tuned, in Cell Block A, fills twelve small ground-level cells with the sounds of resistance poetry or music; viewers can sit on a small stool, imagine themselves confined to a 4x8 area for years on end, and listen to the Nigerian Fela Kuti singing Sorrow Tears and Blood (“Police dey come / Army dey come”); to the Iranian Ahmad Shamlu reciting In This Dead-End Street (“Danger! Don’t dare think. These are strange times, my dear.”); to the Chilean Victor Jara singing Manifesto (“My song is of the ladder / We are building to reach the stars.”); or to the New Czech Chamber Orchestra playing, six decades after the composer’s death, Pavel Haas’s Study for String Orchestra (Terezin 1943).

@Large is a collaborative art project that rivals in complexity in ambition two other grandly scaled artworks shown in the Bay Area in the 1970s: Christo’s Running Fence and Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. Is it time once again for art to aim at social change? Ai would say that it has always been time: “I live in a society where freedom is incredibly precious. We strive for it daily and put forth a great amount of effort, sometimes sacrificing everything to protect this value, to insist on freedom. Freedom for me is not a fixed condition, but a constant struggle.”