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Ai Weiwei: @Large in Alcatraz

Human Rights
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The imagery on this traditional Chinese dragon kite hanging from the ceiling in the New Industries Building, features birds and plants that represent specific nations with records that violate their citizens' human rights and freedoms. © Dawn Starin

Last November, two friends and I were ferried through the waters of the San Francisco Bay to a small dollop of an island, Alcatraz.

Once serving as an army fortress, military prison and a notorious maximum-security federal penitentiary harbouring some of America’s most dangerous criminals, ‘the Rock’ was formerly the address of, among many others, Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, Robert ‘The Birdman’ Stroud, George ‘Machine-Gun’ Kelly and Alvin Karpis, the first ‘Public Enemy No 1’.

Beyond the media hype, the Hollywood ‘glamour’ and the ghastly gangster stories of the Rock, however, there is another, incredibly important story: it is here that many prisoners of conscience were jailed for their beliefs.

Hopi Indian men who refused to send their children away to government boarding schools in the late 19th century and conscientious objectors to military service in World War I were incarcerated here.

It is also here that a political movement was born: after the penitentiary was closed, Native American Indians occupied the abandoned island on three separate occasions. These occupations brought nationwide attention to the fact that many tribes were being decimated by the US government and gave rise to the American Indian (or Red Power) movement.

Today, Alcatraz is a bird sanctuary, national park and major tourist attraction. Every November, on ‘Un-Thanksgiving Day’, Native American Indians gather on the island to honour their past occupations and all those who continue to fight for Native American Indian rights.

Since September 2014, this notorious prison and honourable site of protest has been the setting of an art installation which explores issues of human rights, confinement, punishment, protest and the loss of freedom and liberty.

Its creator? Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist confined, punished and unable to experience full freedom himself, who has often spoken out against human rights abuses and the need for reform.

His new seven-part multi-media exhibition, which will be at Alcatraz until 26 April, was created specifically for the island prison, and is ironically entitled Ai Weiwei: @Large, bringing lightning-clear inspiration and encouragement to ‘the Rock’, a place long seen as a symbol of the US’s craven, murky, dark side.

Since Ai Weiwei is still not allowed to leave China, the entire exhibition was designed and constructed without his ever having stepped foot on Alcatraz. From nearly 10,000 kilometres away, he formed a mental map of the site and imagined, created and directed the exhibits in his Beijing studio. The results are astonishing.

In the New Industries Building, a workplace for privileged prisoners, colourful youthful/playful materials – kites and Legos – were used to represent appalling realities.

In one room, a giant Chinese paper dragon kite made up of many smaller kites painted with flowers and birds – a Colossus ‘yearning to be free’ – is suspended from the ceiling, contained and restrained.

The Twitter symbol –  banned in China – sits within its eyes and the dragon’s body holds quotes from Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden (‘privacy is a function of liberty’), the Manipuri civil rights activist Sharmila Chanu (‘I want to cast my vote’), the Vietnamese human rights lawyer, democracy activist and prominent Catholic blogger, Lê Quốc Quân (‘My words are well intended and innocent’), and Ai Weiwei himself (‘Everyone of us is a potential convict’).

Next door, in a display of 1.2 million Lego bricks titled ‘Trace’, the portraits of 176 dissidents from 36 countries are spread across the floor of the old laundry room. Some of the portraits are of famous individuals; some are of individuals basically unknown outside of their despotic borders. All of them, however, are prisoners of conscience.

Flowers at Ai Weiwei exhibitionFor me, the most beautiful of the seven installations was ‘Blossom’. In the psychiatric observation wing, the old prisoners’ bathrooms were transformed: delicate, shining-white ceramic flowers now fill cracked toilet bowls once shit and piss covered, old scum-covered tubs and once phlegm-covered, rusty sinks.

The installation references China’s Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, a short period of time when the Chinese government tolerated free expression. For me, it signifies something simpler: the idea that out of a swirling cesspool of filth and repression, beauty and unrestrained freedom can emerge, if given the chance.

The most poignant of all the installations, ‘Yours Truly’, is in the dining room – said to be the most dangerous room on the island. Piles of postcards, pre-addressed to many prisoners of conscience around the world, wait for visitors to fill them out.

The postcards, with pictures of flowers and birds representing the nations where the addressed prisoner is being held, will be sent to the prisoners as a reminder that they are not isolated, that their cause has not been forgotten.

Encircled by the natural beauty of the bay, within sight of the vibrant metropolis that is San Francisco, housed together with cracked and rusted fixtures, filthy, broken windows and the ghosts of once-silenced protesting voices, Ai Weiwei has created a space which perfectly captures the importance of freedom of expression and the pain suffered by prisoners of conscience.

Through his use of sculpture, sound and mixed-media works, Ai Weiwei has demonstrated that freedom cannot be imprisoned forever. According to him, ‘When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a window sill.’

Or, in this case, on a rocky island/bird sanctuary in the middle of San Francisco Bay, complete with three-tiered cellblocks, tool-proof steel bars and wall-mounted teargas canisters.

At Alcatraz, a prisoner had four rights: food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Recreational activities like painting and music were privileges to be earned.

Graffiti at AlcatrazUnfettered artistic expression may also seem like a privilege to be earned or an unnecessary luxury, but it is as essential to our intellectual and emotional survival as food and water. It is a part of the very essence that makes us both human and humane.

Ai Weiwei: @Large makes that clear and puts unfettered, politically motivated artistic expression front and centre in a crumbling prison. Will this exhibit interest and educate visitors and arouse discussion about the value of freedom of expression, political protests and the meaning of censorship and imprisonment around the world? I hope so.

Leaving Alcatraz, I realized that although I was incredibly moved by Ai Weiwei’s installation, the most remarkable piece of political art I saw there was in fact outside the exhibition.

I saw it as I stepped foot on the island; I saw it when I left: the water tower still covered with graffiti – preserved vestiges from the Native American occupation of the island – spelling, in thick red letters: ‘Indians Welcome’ and ‘Indian Land’.

Photos copyright Dawn Starin.

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