California Daily Life

An Escape to Alcatraz for Ai Weiwei’s @Large Exhibition

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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For “Trace,” local volunteers pieced together 1.2 million legos and re-created 176 portraits of political exiles and prisoners from around the world.

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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.

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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.

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“Blossom” features thousands of delicate porcelain flowers blooming out toilets and sinks:

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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?

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* 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.

12 Comments

  • Reply
    meds
    November 16, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    I remember walking around the echoey rooms of Alcatraz, and the warm heat of the sun outside as we made our way through the different buildings. This exhibition is really, really something! Thanks for sharing it with us (since there’s no way I think I can take leave to go in the very near future) 🙂

    • Reply
      Sewon
      November 17, 2014 at 9:05 pm

      That was one of my favorite things about Alcatraz, too. You can really simply wander around at your own pace. I think you’d really love this exhibit!

  • Reply
    Angélica
    November 17, 2014 at 3:01 am

    Lovely pictures and what a great exhibition! I especially love the contrast with the grey, old building and the colourful artworks 🙂

    • Reply
      Sewon
      November 17, 2014 at 9:06 pm

      The vivid colors were so striking against the concrete grey of the buildings, for sure. 🙂

  • Reply
    Louise
    November 17, 2014 at 3:53 am

    Oh wow, this looks and sounds brilliant! I have only hear of Alacatraz as “the prison” but what a wonderful idea to use it for exhibition rooms. I’d love to see Ai Wei Wei’s work sometime irl. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Sewon
      November 17, 2014 at 9:07 pm

      I hope they make use of more unused spaces on Alcatraz for exhibits!

  • Reply
    Jane Y.
    November 17, 2014 at 6:15 am

    wow. this is amazing. i wish i could go and see for myself. such an amazing pairing of art and location.

    • Reply
      Sewon
      November 17, 2014 at 9:08 pm

      I really loved seeing tourists accidentally stumble upon an Ai Weiwei installations. Some of them may have not heard about the exhibit, so it must have been a wonderful surprise.

  • Reply
    Amelia
    November 18, 2014 at 4:07 am

    Ai Wei Wei installations in Alcatraz— so freaking amazing. The portraits made out of legos are so awesome.

  • Reply
    janette kim
    November 18, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    This is awesome and love the colors! Wish this exhibition was around when I visited. 🙂

  • Reply
    Jackie
    November 29, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    Wooooow. STUNNING pictures! 🙂

  • Reply
    winnie
    December 1, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    Wow, Sewon I am so lost for words. This is such an amazing exhibition and I’m so pleased you got to visit and document it too! If this was in the UK, I would have gone in a heartbeat. What an incredible location – so poignant too when you take a look at Ai Wei Wei’s work. Amazing!!w

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