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Free Speech @LARGE: AI WEIWEI ON ALCATRAZ

imgres "@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, art exhibition"

Despite the confiscation of Ai WeiWei’s passport by the Chinese government and a period of imprisonment documented in Alison Klayman’s 2012 documentary “Never Sorry,” the Chinese artist and free speech advocate continues to produce provocative international art exhibitions at a scale unimaginable for many artists, especially those confined to their studios like he is, in Beijing. He now must experience his own art installations via video and photo documentation, Skype, social and mainstream media representations. This situation in many ways echoes that of Edward Snowden, and both are consistently using virtual channels to disseminate their ideas and explore trans-governmental narratives.

The 2014 retrospective, Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Brooklyn Museum included many pieces consistent with Ai WeiWei’s critique of the Chinese government, and the exploration of taboos, myths and traditions both East and West. His craftmanship and innovation in a variety of forms: installation, sculpture, film and photography rendered the show a moving tribute and an awe-inspiring experience.

And if you aren’t familiar with his incredibly active bi-lingual Twitter feed, @aiww, be sure to follow it.

This year’s big event for the artist, “@LARGE: AI WEIWEI ON ALCATRAZ” (September 27, 2014-April 26, 2015), presented by the FOR-SITE Foundation in partnership with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the largest onsite exhibition ever hosted at Alcatraz.

To further underscore the controversial inter-governmental nature of the exhibition, no public funds were used for the 3.6 million dollar installation, and For-SITE curator Cheryl Haines had to obtain permission from the State Department to exhibition some of the works.

@Large will provoke visitors to consider the broader social implications of incarceration and the possibilities of art as an act of conscience.

The exhibition, takes place off the coast of San Francisco on the island of Alcatraz, a notorious prison site now overseen by the National Parks Service.

@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz will feature a series of seven site-specific installations by artist Ai Weiwei in four locations on Alcatraz Island, offering a new cultural lens through which to experience the notorious military and federal penitentiary turned national park. […] the exhibition explores urgent questions about human rights and freedom of expression and responds to the potent and layered history of Alcatraz as a place of detainment and protest. The large-scale sculpture, sound, and mixed-media works will be installed in the two-story New Industries Building where “privileged” inmates were permitted to work; the main and psychiatric wards of the Hospital; the A Block cells, the only remaining section of the military prison that was constructed in the early 20th century; and the Dining Hall. With the exception of the Dining Hall, these spaces are usually off limits to visitors, but all will be open to the public throughout the run of the exhibition.[…]

"@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, art exhibition"
A large, Chinese-dragon kite, an image of fierce freedom displayed in the abandoned New Industries Building, where Alcatraz inmates once processed prison laundry.

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The main exhibition includes floorspace filled with LEGO-built portraits of 176 people from around the world who have been imprisoned or exiled due to their beliefs or affiliations, most still incarcerated at the time the artwork was made. And, unlike Ai WeiWei, whose global stature has protected him from further harm, many of these artists and writers and activists are unknown to the world.

Looks like I will have to book some tickets to the Bay Area before the exhibition closes in April.
Will I see you there?

What are your thoughts on this exhibition in the context of the United States incarceration rates, where 716 citizens out of 100,000 are imprisoned per year? Louisiana has the highest rate of all the states, with 1341 per 100,000 in jail. (Compare Norway at 72 per 100,000 and Britian at 147 per 100,000.) And by race, African Americans are jailed at a rate five times that of whites. I look forward to an exhibition and global dialogue that can turn around this trend. And it can at least in part be called “An End to the War on Drugs.”
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  1. Peta Mni

    If ever there was a good excuse to visit SF now is the time! I applaud Ai Wei Wei for “sharing the limelight” so to speak by casting awareness upon not only his plight of imprisonment but that of others. Looking at photos of the gorgeous installation I could not help but feel a barrage of emotions. For example I was at once moved by the beauty of his exquisite pieces while also thankful that his artistry could breathe a spirit of renewal into that site.

    • Denni Elias

      It is indeed not often that people can translate into such beautiful work some concerning social issue, which makes it so powerful and sentimental. I do applaud and look up to Ai WeiWei’s artwork!

  2. R.Stauffer

    Obviously, his artwork is beautiful, but what impresses me most is the level of compassion and fearlessness projected by Ai Wei Wei. The fact that he chose, through his work, to give a voice and attention to the stories and legacies of those who are unknown speaks volumes. It does remind me of Edward Snowden, who was more focused on ensuring the American people were aware of what was happening in regard to surveillance than the intense repercussions he has faced.

    The statistics on incarceration rates are staggering, and I think Ai Wei Wei’s work points out something interesting we should take a further look at as a society: This art chooses to tell the stories of those incapable of telling their own, due to circumstance. Why do we (I’m referring to the collective “we”) not take a closer look at the stories behind these statistics? Why are our rates of incarceration so much higher than other places? Why are African Americans imprisoned at the rate of five times that of whites? Until we start investigating the answers to increasingly hard questions, their stories will remain untold, and the issue unresolved.

    I wish very much I was in San Francisco to witness something so moving and historic. I did follow Ai Wei Wei’s Twitter account-it is wonderfully baffling to see someone tweet in different languages!

  3. Adrienne S

    I’m starting to wish I were closer to SF, just so I could check out this exhibition! The artwork is simultaneously gorgeous and powerful. I think it is a shame that he has been punished for his art, even if it were a critique of his government (Although I am very familiar with the strictness of the Chinese government). What purpose does art serve if not to send a message? Every artist has poured their passion into their art and how many of them are punished for doing so?

    The question of race has to come up whenever we look at crime statistics. Of course, in light of Ferguson, it is difficult to ignore the problem of racism within the division of law enforcement. Here is a list of unarmed people of color who have been gunned down by police: http://gawker.com/unarmed-people-of-color-killed-by-police-1999-2014-1666672349
    At what point can we stop excusing the actions of closed minded individuals? How much more can they get away with? The government is policing people’s art and refusing to acknowledge the ongoing cases of police brutality.

  4. bill ritter

    talk about icelebrities! the use of social media to spread the word about incarceration is powerful. And Ai WeiWei is indeed courageous; such admiration for his commitment and strength, using his art and his own experiences to advocate for justice.
    the prison issue in this country is so important. we have more prisoners – more than 2.1 million – by far than any other country, including china, which has about 1.4 million. we spend in new york $60,000+ per year to house, feed and care for prisoners. Total budget for the country: about $70 billion a year In 1970, before Richard Nixon’s full court press on “law and order,” there were only about 300,000 prisoners in the U.S. and those inside were given rehabilitation programs to give them skills and a new attitude once they were out.
    half the prisoners inside today are there for non-violent crimes. let’s just argue that violent criminals should be behind bars – that’s a million or so who perhaps shouldn’t be there.
    they could be rehabilitated, retrained, given jobs.. start paying taxes, be productive, cut costs to taxpayers and indeed contribute to the economy. having a job cuts down on crime.
    there is a a growing prison garden movement across the country – using social media to help kick start support – and organized by community activists and wardens themselves, who know that keeping men (and they’re mostly men) behind bars does neither the prisoner nor society any good.
    finally – i’ve been to alcatraz … it’s an incredible place… spooky, scary, sobering. but looking at Ai WeiWei’s artwork juxtaposed against the drab and dreary concrete with such a dark history, gives a feeling of hope.

  5. Roderic David

    I think its very admirable what Ai WeiWei has created especially wight he limitations placed on him. I think this installation speaks to the true ability of art, the way it uses images to bring an issue into a greater consciousness. I think having it take place at Alcatraz Island, taking back that space and repurposing it for a new message is powerful as well.

    What’s most striking about this to me is that despite the face WeiWei himself is not able to leave his country, this installation still took place, and in many ways is itself a form of protest against his punishment. Similarly to R. Stauffer above, I was really taken aback by WeiWei forging ahead with telling this story despite his predicament, and because of this there are now so many other stories that will now be able to be heard.

  6. Rachel Weidinger

    I think it’s really incredible the level of spread from Ai WeiWei’s determination to fight specific issues. Several people are aware of his efforts due to his expressions via exhibitions, media posts, video, and photography. He’s really utilizing all virtual channels to “disseminate” his ideas and “explore transgovernmental narratives.” After reading this and watching the trailer of “Free Speech” I can’t wait to learn more about his efforts and most of all – the responses from the public, media and government. I think he is completely correct when he says, “If you don’t act now, the danger becomes stronger.” If you keep waiting for someone else to fight your battles, nothing will ever change.

      • Kathleen Sweeney

        The issue of “transgovernmental narratives” is key here. Ai WeiWei demonstrates how it is possible to speak out as a global citizen about free speech issues. Maplines have blurred via social media. Stories reach us at lightning speed from Nigeria, Iran, Korea, Egypt bringing us closer to an understanding of the need for global rights and global democracies. What happens on the other side of the world affects us all…

  7. Zoe Taraz

    Ai Wei Wei’s exhibition in Alcatraz sets up a impactful message within a place that mirrors the importance of his installation. Wei Wei’s own experience makes him a strong storyteller within his artwork. Yet one could argue that the space in which he displays this installation helps mold and create the artwork. Alcatraz is a place teeming with history, restrictions, pain, and fear. The prison that was supposedly inescapable, the place where the ‘worst’ of humanity was kept to be punished and excluded from society. Yet this seemingly dark and grey place full of bad memories and fear is filled with colorful almost playful looking art. The message is in opposition to what Alcatraz once stood for. This seemingly playful appearance of art, takes direct opposition to the space which is containing and in a way restricting the movement of the art . The way he shows a lego like portraiture of prisoners creates in the viewer to look at these prisoners not in a fearful way but within a more childlike lense.
    In California the percentage of budget we spend on prisons far exceeds the the amount we spend on education. 8% of our budget goes towards imprisoning the states citizens. Many find this the new form of slavery. There is a clear problem and it is a terribly difficult situation with many different stakeholders. This exhibit gives light to the problem in a visually entertaining, and easy to view manner, which in turn spreads awareness for these greater issues.

  8. Jennifer Chien

    I’ve actually attended several of Ai Wei Wei’s exhibitions throughout my travels and his work always inspires me and teaches me how to think differently. I have seen “Never Sorry” the trailer version a couple of times, which touches on the importance of free speech and how it is prohibited in China due to the government’s regulations on strict information sharing in the country. This specific exhibition based on Alcatraz will enable a feature that people are extremely interested in but have never been able to really see or learn about it due to close regulations. Ai Wei Wei enables viewers to experience the issues revolving Alcatraz and the work that is provided to go along with the feature is able to trigger viewer’s emotions through his works of arts. He continues to inspire other artists and people through the creation of works related to bigger issues and I wish I could head over to San Francisco to check out this exhibition!

  9. Jacqueline

    Wow, this exhibit looks absolutely stunning both visually and in terms of the subject matter/content. I so wish I could check this out–looks incredible and worthy of an incredible social media out pour.

  10. Michelle Quach

    I’m absolutely inspired with the amount of awareness Ai Wei Wei spreads. He isn’t just fighting against his homeland’s government but also bringing important matters to the forefront especially adding the lego-like images of many other activist who people wouldn’t be able to identify. Like many, I would love to visit this exhibition!! I’m blown by the increasing U.S. incarceration rates. Its crazy how much money we put into prisons as well. I’m actually surprised of how big the difference is compared to other countries; its sad!

  11. Sara Maldonado

    Ai Wei Wei’s work speaks volumes. It’s great to see the spotlight on the US prison system. In our country we pride ourselves on freedom and yet we incarcerate our own people at an alarming rate. His innovative use of technology is also very cool. It allows him to mobilize his art and his message. I would love to go to San Francisco and see his work in person as well!

  12. Denni Elias

    Ai WeiWei’s ability to protest and express his concern in such an outstanding artistic work must become a part of a modern revolution, where people with all talents can transmit and change perceptions of a backwards society where inequality and prejudice are still governing.

    The whole idea of getting Ai WeiWei’s artwork in Alcatraz as its installation location makes it so much more powerful that I really wish I was there to feel that impact of understanding his deeper feelings towards freedom of speech and expression. It also raises the concern of the unfortunate and irrational incarceration rate in the US, and makes us think that it is indeed time to review and redesign the laws and processes against police brutality.

  13. Tina Fun

    If there’s anyone better at stirring up conversations and creating contradictions than the Kardashians, It will be Ai Wei Wei. A Wei Wei is a contemporary artist thats not only known for his art and installation pieces but also for his strong stand against the Chinese government. Because of his bold statements and options, he was arrested and held for almost 3 month in Beijing, his hometown. He’s father, Ai Qing, was one of the most significant modern Chinese Poet and was denounced by the Chinese government during the anti-rightest movement. The Ai family was forced to move to a labour camp where Ai Wei Wei spend all his childhood days at. Growing up with the first hand experience of how Mao’s Communist government have oppressed it’s people; Ai Wei Wei dedicates most of his art expressing freedom of speech and basic human rights.

    The exhibition regarding the US incarceration rate is interesting because it illustrates some of the fundamental issues of this nation using simple visuals and stats. Why do some stares have more prisoner than others? Why are some races more commonly in jail than others? Ai Wei Wei’s work does not guide you through paths of pretty decorative art. Ai Wei Wei’s art is straight forward and it’s constantly asking it’s viewers to be aware of what is happening around us and demonstrating the most brutal truth about some of the limitations of freedom and rights we face in this world.


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