As soon as I heard about Ai Weiwei’s @Large exhibit opening, I booked two ferry tickets to Alcatraz for my first trip out to the legendary island. We glided across the Bay’s deceptively still waters on a boat full of tourists. As the city fell into the distance, but never out of sight, we arrived on the island.
I’ve always thought of Alcatraz as just a classic tourist destination, filled with stories of the prison’s notorious captives and escapees. When I saw the red letters painted across the face of the concrete penitentiary building, I realized that the island had also been a site of Native American activism.
Out of Ai Weiwei’s seven-part installation, we first stumbled upon “With Wind.” More than 100 vibrantly painted kites comprise the body of the dragon, which hangs from the ceiling as if in flight.
On one of the kites, the words “every one of us is a potential convict” is nearly camouflaged in colorful blocks.
I remember arriving in Shanghai with my two suitcases back in 2010, and realizing that I could no longer blog. The government had blocked access to Blogspot, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. I mentioned it in passing, here and there. Although we found a way around the censorship, it simply became all the more important for me to document, connect, and remember.
“When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.” — Ai Weiwei
For “Trace,” local volunteers pieced together 1.2 million legos and re-created 176 portraits of political exiles and prisoners from around the world.
To view “Refraction” we had to climb to a narrow hallway where guards once walked above rooms of prisoners with guns in hand. We peered through broken windows to observe the 8,000-pound winged creature, made of solar panels used to heat food in Tibet.
We did the audio tour of the cell blocks, which led us to this view of the city from inside the prison walls.
There was also a series of sound installations by Ai Weiwei, including chants of the Hopi tribe members and Tibetan monks situated inside prison cells.
“Blossom” features thousands of delicate porcelain flowers blooming out toilets and sinks:
We saw a beautiful sunset on our ferry ride back to the city.
Back home, here now in San Francisco, what does a fight for freedom look like?
* Helpful tip: There are different types of tours to the island, which can be a bit confusing. Standard ferry tickets to Alcatraz are $30 for adults, and includes an audio tour of the cell blocks and access to the “@Large” exhibition. I really loved embarking on the 3 PM ferry, because we got to experience both the sunshine and sunset. Exhibition is on view until April 26, 2015.