San Francisco – Ai Weiwei: “Large” at Alcatraz Island Through April 26th, 2015

October 1st, 2014

Ai Weiwei, Blossom (2014) (Detail) photo by Jan Stürmann, courtesy of FOR-SITE foundation

After much anticipation, Ai Weiwei has opened his new project at Alcatraz, the former island prison in the San Francisco Bay.  The project, which brings seven large-scale installations incorporating photography, installation, sound and video, is a fitting continuation of Ai’s projects examination of incarceration following his own imprisonment in 2011.

Ai Weiwei, Yours Truly (2014) (Detail) photo by Jan Stürmann, courtesy of FOR-SITE foundation

Since his capture, the narrative of Chinese artist’s imprisonment for tax evasion has become part of both his practice and mystique.  His S.A.C.R.E.D. dioramas, installed last year at Venice, were as much a staggering look at imprisonment as they were the physical representation of an event that initially shocked the art world when it first occurred, a visualization that finally gave viewers and curators a firsthand look at the dark side of China’s political establishment.  Here, Ai takes a step back, removing some of the charged personal politics that made S.A.C.R.E.D. such a defiant stroke.

Ai Weiwei, Trace (2014) (Detail) photo by Jan Stürmann, courtesy of FOR-SITE foundation

Even so, the exhibition does not lose strength in terms of its effective power.  Exercising a careful, studied approach to the space (even more impressive given the artist’s current house arrest in China), each work maximizes its intersection with the history of both Ai’s China and the San Francisco prison itself.  Blossom, for instance, fills several prison rooms with ceramic bouquets of flowers, a strikingly minimal work that turns a space of harsh oppression into one of eerie reverence, while ironically referencing China’s “Hundred Flowers Campaign” (a period of tolerant free speech which preceded a harsh political crackdown).

Ai Weiwei, Refraction (2014) (Detail) photo by Jan Stürmann, courtesy of FOR-SITE foundation

Other works make a more direct link to forms of political and creative oppression worldwide.  Trace, a series of portraits of political dissidents and prisoners made entirely from LEGO bricks, applies an abstracted humanity to those exiled or oppressed for their beliefs and actions.  Rendered in stark, chromatic colors, the works are strangely powerful, underscoring a sense of sharp contrast between political expression and the often single-minded view of government bureaucracies and wider political systems.

Ai Weiwei, Blossom (2014) (Detail) photo by Jan Stürmann, courtesy of FOR-SITE foundation

But the artist’s most notable works here signal a return to his large-scale installation work, including Yours Truly, a work where visitors can write letters of support to the prisoners mentioned in Trace, or With Wind, an immense Chinese dragon that snakes its way through one of the former labor buildings at Alcatraz.  Underscoring a restriction of movement within the harsh confines of the building, as well as a colorful rebirth of spirit within its borders, the work is a striking icon that perhaps best summarizes Ai’s recent experiences, and his artistic mission moving forward.  Bringing attention to the space of incarceration as one of potential re-creative energies, the artist manages to center a certain awareness of the global political condition while offering some initial alternatives to its hegemonic power.  Much more work is needed, the artist seems to emphasize, but broadening the dialogue seems to be a strong first step.

Ai Weiwei, With Wind (2014) (Detail) photo by Jan Stürmann, courtesy of FOR-SITE foundation

— D. Creahan

Read more:
Exhibition Site [Parks Conservancy]
Confined In China, Ai Weiwei Directs Alcatraz Exhibit From Afar [NPR]
Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz [NYT]
Ai Weiwei Installs Seven Large-Scale Works on Alcatraz Island [DesignBoom]