The Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei was clearly attracted to the prospect of creating site-specific sculptures for the cavernous nineteenth-century prison structures on Alcatraz island, a long unused federal penitentiary which concretized state power in the mind of many Americans over the last century, as a site to reflect on conditions of imprisonment world-wide. For the now abandoned structures of the hulking prison island still seem inhabited by ghosts of the past, and high on atmospherics, even as its space has been reclaimed by Ai’s site-specific remapping of the spirits of the imprisoned.
For Ai’s art seems to have relaxed into the monumental fortress like buildings of detention in a defiant forms and brilliantly colored works of art; even if he never visited the site, the former setting of forced imprisonment gives resonance to fitting the pavement with portraits that map ongoing global detention of free speech. The empty monumental structures of the labor hall, individual cells, sites of solitary confinement and prison corridors reflect on those detained across the globe and the daily difficulty of wrestling with their conditions of continued confinement by different states, from China to the US. Indeed, the widespread use of solitary confinement in Alcatraz–a pitch black cell for torturing many of its prisoners that was developed by the prison’s former Chief Warden Edwin James and E.B. Tiller in rooms whose impermeable layers of steel masked the entrance of light or sound in Alcatraz’ Cellblock D from 1940, long a corridor of solitary isolation cells including a room of bare concrete save a hole in the floor, without clothes–
–with limited interest in the rights or lives of the incarcerated who were allowed to live in an without light or sound and only a metal frame bed, sink, and toilet, and one pair of shorts for up to nineteen continuous days to enforce prison discipline. Alcatraz was not the first site of isolation by any means, but a site for its preservation where prisoners were forced to Personally, I find it is crucial to use moments of isolation as ways to develop self-control in order as in “control[ling] our inner self, we have won our first battle for freedom,” and the preservation of internal freedoms during imprisonment is celebrated in Ai Wei Wei’s installation. And at the same time as the use of solitary confinement has expanded, and unlawful detainees remain in the Guantanamo Bay complex of detention is not able to be closed while it holds five detainees, despite urging to congressional leaders for its closure, it is more than incumbent to remember the need to resist the civil rights violations of such inhumane units of segregation, and to draw sustainable to continue to do so–and to not forget the injustices daily faced by incarcerated populations.
The cell becomes the only space to “create right” by exercise, meditation, refleciton. Isolation of prisoners, extended periods of forced solitude, and sensory deprivation is inhumane but continues to be used by many state prison authorities and in the authorities that run and operate units of incarceration the country, where 23-or 24-hour isolation is common and such intentional violations of prisoners’ rights not only in supermax prisons and have exponentially increased as a means to illustrate total control over imprisoned. If such incarcerated populations are compelled to treat the isolation cell as a laboratory in response to the harsh conditions of dark, unmitigated electric lighting, or cold: the bright re-imaging the faces of the imprisoned creates the Cell Blocks of Alcatraz as a new sort of performance space to map imprisonment far beyond its walls from the unique perspective Alcatraz offers on solitary isolation, in contrast to the hard stares of those imprisoned–
“We’re actually a part of the reality, and if we don’t realize that, we are totally irresponsible,” the dissident artist Ai Wei Wei has said about his work, and in being “part of the reality [of incarceration] means that we need to produce another reality”–and to map one. By replacing the colorless pavement of several of the Cell Blocks in Alcatraz with an alternate reality of vibrant colors not only of Lego portraits, but of the colored paper of huge dragons of the imagination, the austere burdens of the grey floors and pale green walls of Alcatraz are in a sense re-inhabited. Ai’s placement of a set of day-glo images of the imprisoned and detained within a former site of confinement famed as a site of solitary isolation, built in a former fortress in San Francisco Bay to be removed from contact with the outside world, provides a point of reflection on the reality of imprisonment worldwide.
Using a plethora of pieces of lego, ceramic blossoms, and Chinese kites of dragons, and recorded song, Ai has both celebrated the possibility of ongoing resistance in the space of forced sequestration into a message of hope for all those detained, sending, despite his own limited circumstances of travel, instructions for media to inhabit the prison and sought to raise questions of the ever-encroaching global circumscription of freedom that ask us to map and to accept responsibility for the confinement of of global champions of free speech, and indeed to try to open the survival of spirit in the halls of imprisonment.
Ai has long been committed to creating a deeply “social sculpture” and to do so through an awareness of the architectural space in which each of his works is constructed and situated, as well as the sense of space it creates for its viewers or users–from the analogue architecture of his popular blog or twitterfeed to built spaces to the deep sense of cultural inter-relationships that his work communicates. The canvas of pieces of Lego that temporarily filled the New Industries Building on Alcatraz Island presented an alternate surface of mugshots of recently confined spokespeople or human rights heroes in brilliant colored pieces of plastic–creating the sort of odd juxtaposition of form ant site, media across time, that wasn’t about imprisonment per se, echoing the pixellated images of each figure that we might see in mass media, filling the floor that lies above a basement filled with a wing made of tin teapots and solar cookers–the patience of the imprisoned?–whose confined space stands in juxtaposition with the airy room in which tourists crowded to see–and try to identify–the portraits of politically imprisoned in a mute surface made from $450,000 worth of multicolored pieces of Lego, converting one of the clunkiest of modernity’s concrete metaphors into a tool of subversive playfulness.
The famously outsized scale of many of the pieces in this show recall Ai’s similarly hypertrophied assembly of 1,000 sq meters of plastic backpacks on the facade of the Haus der Kunst that remember the lives lost in the tragedy of a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, but the metaphorical wealth of the similarly bright mosaics of Lego have less overpowering impact than the five-color statement of the fragility of life–“for seven years, she lived happily on this earth,” the sewn dayglo backpacks read, bitterly–
–but rather an image of the bitterness of the global status quo. The flatness of the images push visitors to fathom the depths of the resources of their resistance, if only focussing on the bright surface of their spirits, but don’t expose their hand.
The colored pavement of pixellated portraits of one hundred and seventy six recent prisoners of conscience map global imprisonment in a one-brick layer of Lego runs across the grey floor of a cavernous room of the abandoned New Industries Building in the former high-security federal prison. The choice of a world-famous former prison such as Alcatraz, isolated on an island in San Francisco Bay, by the For Site foundation to locate these technicolor mug shots of detained champions of human rights is particularly apt site. The temporary construction of 1.2 million Lego pieces serves as a canvas to commemorate the resistance of those charges or convicted of crimes in the complex of one hundred and seventy-six figures create an atlas of imprisonment–from familiar faces from the late Nelson Mandela (imprisoned in solitary South Africa from 1962 to 1989) to Aung San Suu Kyi (under house arrest house arrest in Myanmar for almost 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010) to Liu Xian Bin to Liu Xiaobo (sentenced to eleven years of confinement in 2009) to Edward Snowden (forced to seek refuge in May, 3013 after leaking NSA documents) to the Iranian Shi’i cleric Sayed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi (imprisoned in October, 2006 in Teheran). Set in the floor of an abandoned structure of forced detention and prison work, the bright mosaic of faces is eloquent in its muteness and sense of survival.
The pavement of portraits evoke colorized prison mug shots of those confined on the island. But they depict prisoners of conscience who are located on a global scope, creating a composite microcosm of different clusters of imprisoned from China to Iran to the United States to Burma to Russia. The new context for the assemblage of faces, included in Trace, are but one part of Ai Wei Wei’s re-use of the abandoned prison’s monumental buildings. They offer but a way that the Chinese dissident artist re-inhabits the buildings of the former federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in @Large. The work that testifies as much to his ability to work in different venues while confined under house arrest, as to call attention to the spirit of many imprisoned or confined who are apt to gain less media attention than the three Nobel Peace prize winners among them, and, although now disbanded, testifies both to the brightness and the fragility of resistance: the pieces are a composite whose delicate construction was always poised to be dismantled; rather than being laminated or glued to one another, the complex of Lego pieces was often nudged, fragmented, or jostled by the feet of visitors who sought to enter spots around the pillars the room of the abandoned New Industries Building to get a better view of the faces, and a sort of memory gallery of the global resistance of a human spirit.
The microcosm of the confined that Ai Wei Wei designed for @Large holds mirror up to its own structure, transforming the unused former spaces of confinement into a truly unique meditative space to reflect on the powers of resistance. In picturing individual endurance of prisoners of conscience, the gallery Ai assembled maps a collective testimony to their spiritual strength in a space of confinement in six panels. The figures materialized in colored plastic pieces inhabit the very building where prisoners once worked during their imprisonment, as if in a respite from confinement, whose cavernous interior offers perfect venue for depicting the collective strength of prisoners suffering worldwide. Working with a list of prisoners of conscience obtained from Amnesty International, Ai concretized images of those imprisoned world-wide that oddly emulate the digitized graphics of a video screen in humbler media: faces peer out from the lego-mosaics in rooms of the former structure of federal incarceration once a monumental military fortress, whose nineteenth-century structure now sits in a National Park. The plastic mosaic invites visitors to the oppressive prison island to navigate a complex of world imprisonment ,and acknowledge the strength of spirit that inspire their courage in the face of continued imprisonment by oppressive states. A few are immediately recognized, as Snowden or Mandela, but we are more often likely to forget the multiple suffering of most–less apt to be aware of their continued torture, confinement or exile.
The collage-like images that cover the stark light-green airy floor, somewhat grouped by nationalities in six ‘zones’ of individuals, stand as emblems of imprisonment unlike the somewhat terrifying novelty objects sold at the site such as playing cards featuring faces famous prisoners. For the six panels of one hundred and seventy-six figures invite us to reflect on ongoing individual struggles, and to bridge our own place in the prison buildings to their suffering. The complex of buildings around the monumental fortress on the isolated island, converted into a site of federal imprisonment, which invites visitors to draw connections between the once-confining structures of the high-security prison with how prisoners of conscience world-wide. Indeed, walking above the pavement, from a “Gun Gallery” from which guards surveilled the workers in the New Industries building, one watches the colored faces through broken windows, surveilling these images of the imprisoned as the prison guards once controlled those who worked below, seeing cells of images don the floor below, to remind us of their vulnerability.
Ian W. Abbott
The survival of the spirit in a map of state oppression is unpacked inside the monumental buildings of the former prison. Beside the buildings as famed for solitary confinement as for imprisonment, to which one must arrive to view the pieces, the portraits follow from a room inhabited by a snaking paper dragon made of colorful paper, as if a kite, titled “With Wind,” bright segments of whose form snakes through a stark room, suspended by strings, among maxims and painted flowers, including one from the artist himself–“Every one of us is a potential convict“–that links any visitor to the rooms of the prison to the suffering of prisoners held by states worldwide.
Ai has re-rendered the enameled faces as heroes of imprisonment and testimonies to their human spirit. By identifying names in the abandoned workspace of the prison in one of the older and more comfortable plastic idioms of globalization–Lego–whose vivid commercial colors, so similar to those Ai loves, whose bright colors stand in sharp contrast to the drab canvas of the abandoned surroundings of the former spaces of confinement. If that often seem so haunted by ghosts of those confined there, even as they bear testimony to the courage of individuals who stand up to existing oppressive states–in a space which once offered the sparest possibility of release and survival in a structure of total surveillance and control.
If visitors to the prison island are often asked if their interest stemmed from the paranormal, the abandoned workspace of the prison is re-inhabited by images of today’s imprisoned and confined in vivid ways. If a notorious former prisoner, Joe Quillen, remembered the work he did in the Brush shop that once inhabited the space as “the most frustrating and boring, not to mention aggravating, work I have ever done—before, during, or after my release,” the abandoned structure is both repopulated and transformed to an emblematic memory theater of resistance to the travail of imprisonment worldwide, in ways that visitors are unlikely to forget.
New Industries Building–Alcatraz Prison
Is the re-use of this formerly empty space, unavoidably haunted by memories of the confined, temporarily remade into a repository of hope in an age where the abuses of state power are all to apt to be forgotten by a globalized media?
1. A dialectic emerges when one enters @Large between the gloriously triumphant paper kites of dragon one first encounters in the buildings’ initial room and the flat faces that lie as if laminated on the cavernous room that follows that illuminates the contrast between the spaces of confinement and the possibilities of individual resistance to state power. It finds a further counterpoint from the mammoth metal wings that lies in a room below, as if confined, as if to create a new note through which the prison can be transformed into a deeply meaningful gallery, and force one to reflect on the practice of viewing art –and indeed the on the relevance of making art. To call it a map may be heavy handed, despite the national clustering of many of the images in the ‘zones’ of portraits in the New Industries Building’s otherwise bare concrete floor. Of the portraits, some thirty-six show figures imprisoned in China, twenty-six in Iran, sixteen in Vietnam, fifteen in Bahrain, six in the United States, six in Uzbekistan, and five from Saudi Arabia. But they provide a map of resistance to state structures that come from Ai’s own mind, but map a topography of resistance world-wide. The odd echo of these pixellated portraits with video images of these individuals which they seem to render offer a point of resistance to the increasingly globalized nature of news.
In one on the largest site-specific mixed-media work of art ever planned off-site, in “@Large” Ai Weiwei reflects on the structures of imprisonment on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay in order to map imprisonment worldwide in its often ominously cavernous structures–as if to repopulate the historical prison with a sense of resistance that loosens its overwhelming sense of oppression. It is necessary to approach Alcatraz island by boat across San Francisco Bay to see the exhibit. The transit reminds one the cordoned preserve of the former high-security federal prison was an island of confinement, and one’s approach to something like a sacred site or shrine. In an attempt to disrupt the once-oppressive monumentality of the prison structures, Ai has filled the complex with a level of sculptural creativity that challenges one to process the experience of carceral confinement itself–and worldwide phenomenon of imprisonment which we are all too ready to marginalize from our minds.
Most all the pieces are inseparable from the isolated site of the high-security prison known simple as The Rock. They are viewed only from its space, but require special transit to the prison island to be seen. The very voyage to the prison and trek to the New Industries Building whose floor was patrolled by unarmed guards, ready to whistle to armed guards in the above gun gallery to signal possible trouble, offers time to reflect on its space. The visit to the now vacated but still oppressive leaves an indelible imprint on one’s sense of the individual’s relation to the state, as the illustration of the potential power of personal freedom–emblematized by the traditional dragon kites and the statements of resistance that are written on the individual kites that constitute the body of the dragon, that we meet before the faces of the imprisoned or confined activists on the floor of the New Industries Building. The multiple parts of the artworks are viewed from the very structures of imprisonment–Cell Block A; the hospital and solitary rooms; through still-broken windows of the Gun Gallery above the workspace that once offered a temporal respite from spaces of confinement. Visitors are forced to navigate and negotiate former spaces of confiment while moving among the seven other sculptures within the ruins of a now-abandoned prison.
The ambition of remapping the collective experience of imprisonment on the abandoned world-famous prison and transforming the long unused structures into a site to commemorate prisoners of conscience would not seem a subject likely to be upbeat. Former areas of prison surveillance, many off-limits to tourists to the former penitentiary, have been opened for the occasioned and are filled with various forms of meditating on global issues of individual confinement. In an age when the solitary structures of Alcatraz–confinement rooms; a laundry building; a block of cells–might be visited as historical artifacts, the innovative ways that the structure has been effectively re-imagined to reflect on its former use, whose elements stand in close dialogue with the removed and isolated structure of the prison island.
2. Although Ai never visited the prison–the multi-media sculptures were assembled by his studio assistants, although the site was described to the artist–this exhibit remains site-specific. For-Site’s founder Cheryl Haines described it as an exercise in imagining creative capacities of one confined. And even if achieved without the artist’s presence at the island, it offers a testament to the global reach of creativity–engaging concerns about state-mandated confinement that recall the dissident artist’s own eighty-one day long detainment by military police whose “mental torture” of confinement he still remembers so well. But the oppressive architecture of the rows of gated cells of the prison, rooms of the confined, and spaces of supervised work are transformed to places reinhabited not by the spirits or ghosts of their former inmates, but the resistance of the imprisoned worldwide.
Even though Ai could not set foot the crumbling and once-imposing carceral structures of Alcatraz for which seven of his works were conceived and planned, he inhabits its imposing nineteenth-century buildings with a series of engaging reflections about confinement in quite inventive ways. The location becomes a sort of stage rather than simply an exhibition space. For the installation profits from the re-imagining of a space of confinement that long stood removed in San Francisco Bay, opening the former prison to a public space for reflecting on worldwide issues of imprisonment. In repopulating several historic buildings of imprisonment with works of art, the artist ambitiously invites visitors to imagine the long-closed high-security prison as a space that the globally incarcerated symbolically inhabit. The plan to use Alcatraz island, now a park, as a staging-ground for a sculptural intervention was planned by the San Francisco-based For-Site, a non-profit dedicated to the creation of new spaces for public art. The manner that he used Alcatraz as a site to universalize a meditation on imprisonment–and individual resistance–re-maps the topography of incarceration worldwide in ways that embrace a globalized culture.
The commission includes as its centerpiece an almost monumental ground mosaic of colored Lego in one room, but expands across six structures in multimedia sculptures and music. Its planning no doubt occasioned broad research on the experience of confinement by Ai, who was jailed and remains under house arrest: the artworks that extend across the cells in A Block, the old Dining Hall, Hospital and so-called New Industries Building exploit their unique site to try to describe the experience of confinement. At the expansive exhibit’s center lies “Trace,” six rows of portraits of individuals imprisoned or confined because of their beliefs in a large room’s pavement in colored Lego, separated by paths to recall photo-strips or being seen through bars to evoke the prison island’s tradition of solitary confinement.
The floor-lain gallery of faces of the imprisoned, if slightly skewed to Asia, offer Ai a means to alert us to a global map of unjust imprisonment by a sequence of faces rendered in the international industrial idiom of colored Lego, whose forms, “easily destroyed and taken apart, ready to be remade and reimagined,” as Ai Weiwei told The New York Times, provide new tools to repopulate the island and to remind us of global problems of imprisonment. As if as a surrogate for the prisoners Alcatraz prison once housed from 1934 to 1963, the ingeniously arranged raised rows of plastic portraits in “Trace” transform a site associated with solitary confinement to a microcosm of unjustly imprisoned people worldwide. The heavy-handed architecture of the carceral structure is reinhabited in ways that remind us of the global problem of state oppression and imprisonment today, in ways that the limited aesthetics of Lego could hardly be thought of as able to capture–but provide a curiously perfect global medium to portray.
Surrounded by often broken old penitentiary windows, one scans the expansive commemorative mosaic of profiles of men and women imprisoned for their beliefs–each of its 1.2 million individual pieces of colored plastic pieces of Lego arranged as if to constitute a map of human rights violations or a gallery of individual portraits of prisoners of conscience in the architecture of imprisonment–faces of those whose spirits pressed through the bars of their own confinement, and which Ai makes present even while reminding us of their grimness of their current circumstances.
As one moves into the the high-security penitentiary itself, a row of cells never converted from the original military prison, were opened and employed for the exhibit “At LARGE,” and they become a space for Ai Wei Wei to inhabit with art, as if to heal the suffering that occurred there. One enters the cells to listen to piped in music of individuals or musicians who have meditated on imprisonment or whose work is associated with their resistance to a state, from Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking against the Vietnam War to Pavel Haas in Thereistadt to the Prison Songs of the Robben Island Singers to Fela Kuti to Pussy Riot, piped into Cell Block A. Climbing to the prison’s hospital and psychological isolation rooms, one finds them filled with meditative Hopi collective song and Buddhist chants from the Namgyal monastery of Dharamsala–the aural section “Stay Tuned” is less well integrated with the visual art in the New Industries Buildings, but inhabits the former topography of the prison’s space of imprisonment, as if to map it onto the struggles against government and state worldwide–and ceramic flowers fill the basins and sinks of the hospital, as if to plant seeds of hope in its space.
The combination Ai creates of global culture continues a spirit of resistance to the confinement of the prison spaces of Alcatraz’s largely nineteenth-century military fortress, to raise “questions of confinement that resonate far beyond this place.” While universal in its scope, and daunting in its ambitions, Ai clearly worked from his own experience of the conditions of penitentiary confinement and his particular interest in music as a means of “release” from the restrictions of the site: “During my detention,” he remembered, “the conditions were very restrictive, but the guards would often secretly ask me to sing for them. Being in that environment makes me realize that for these people, the only available release or means to kill time, is music. I felt deeply sorry that I couldn’t do it, either I was not in the mood or I didn’t think I can sing. The only songs I knew were the revolutionary ones. It is the same for many Chinese people; we had to memorize every red song. Creating music is a way to break through that situation.” The mutation of a space of confinement to one of release–and indeed one of mapping a geography of imprisonment worldwide by a set of puzzle-like portraits of prisoners of conscience–serves as almost a meditation on the nature of confinements and human resilience. Curator Cheryl Haines recalls that after she first proposed Ai use a prison as a site to work in 2011, Ai responded simply “Yes. I would like that.”
The work remakes the famous carceral space in continuously creative ways, engaging with the legendary remove of the prison that took isolation and solitary confinement to new extent, and re-inhabiting the very structures of confinement with music of resistance and the rooms of its hospital with delicate ceramic flowers of plum blossoms.
3. The intense isolation of the former site of confinement must have particularly appealed to an artist now forbidden from travel. Ai must indeed have been attracted to working within a space of imprisonment whose structures were a monument of confinement as an opportunity to bridge his own experience of imprisonment, to which he often refers and reflected deeply on, to the way creativity can disrupt the experience of incarceration in a prison island that lay just a mile and a quarter from inhabited shores.
The site of Alcatraz prison was long distinguished by its geographically removed sites a famed site of individual confinement whose remove made escape impossible. The prison island that famously lies at a remove in the depths of San Francisco Bay, the former prison colony was not only surrounded by bathymetric depths daunting to cross, over a mile from shore, standing as a metaphor for a global carceral network, whose fame as a site of staging attempted historical escapes stands in odd contrast to the quiet, peaceful surroundings of a home for nesting migrating birds, cormorants, and seagulls, reminding us of the etymology of the name of the island as a site for seabirds, alcatrases, or pelicans. Ai gestures to the discontinuity between the site’s history and location in how the large bird-like colored paper kites, winged mixed media sculptures, and piped-in soundtracks either directly or obliquely reference the spaces of imprisonment in what was once a federal high-security prison, isolated in the Bay and surrounded by deep waters.
The odd juxtaposition of an island that lasted for over a century still provides a monument to mass confinement, a “notorious penitentiary” from which no one ever escaped, which held some of the most hardened criminals from 1934 to 1963, provides a perfect site in which to excavate the experience of imprisonment, and for Ai Weiwei to invite the voices of those imprisoned to speak.
After the end of an era with closure of the prison in 1963, the complex became a tourist site that was a butt of jokes–“Having a Wonderful Time/Wish You Were Here!”–reflecting the unease with which it was known both among criminals and in popular jargon as “the Rock” as a space of isolation, whose remove in the Bay Area, surrounded by deep waters, made it an object of fascination more as a site of planning impossible escapes. Its twelve acres incarnated an image of a penal colony in the United States.
So legendary was the self-contained space of imprisonment that the fourteen failed attempted escapes from the federal prison were each catalogued as if each constituted independent but epic micro-narratives:
The mosaic that is the centerpiece to “@Large” invites viewers to join in a collective act of remembering to interrogate the nature of imprisonment in a famous structure of confinement, by mapping a reminder of global human rights violations–as well as the globalization of the practice of confinement–in a somewhat unavoidably overwhelming ways. Ai Weiwei rebranded the notion of the prison’s space for an exhibition that evoked the possibility of spaciousness.
4. It is not too much of a stretch to say that mapping was on Ai’s mind, in a work which suggests the artist’s own transcendence of his confinement in China–echoed in the flying dragon-like wings that suggest the ability of his imagination to reach other spaces of confinement and imprisonment. Despite some criticisms of the constrained positions of confinement with which visitors are invited to engage the sculptures from a balcony, and of the distractions of comprehending its content or fulfilling obligations of identifying an overwhelming 176 portraits of the mass of figures exiled or imprisoned because of beliefs, as an artist Ai must have been drawn to the notion of remapping a carceral network of global proportions. Indeed, his organization of works of art in the “retired” prison that he made Alcatraz a newly defined capital of imprisonment and incarceration, in ways that redraw the relations between local and global Ai has long been sensitive in works such as “World Map” (2006-2009)–reflecting, it has been suggested, to the disparities of global circulation of commodities, to the artificial bases of its cartographical division into discrete units. “China,” Ai said, comparing his craft to its industrial over-production, “is blindly producing for the demands of the world market . . . . I’m part of it, which is a bit of nonsense.” (China is the world’s largest producer of cotton textiles and clothes, and sheets of cotton are lain atop one another in this three-dimensional rendering of a world map.)
The contrast between a historical resonance of a space of confinement and a pop-culture commodity is typical of the juxtaposition of media in Ai’s work. Working in such a limited and constrained medium as Lego contrasts sharply with the expansive outdoor sculptures in the complex, as the globalized idiom of Lego contrasts with the gravity of the issues he seeks to address. Ai is a transgressive juxtapositions of craft by trade, and has offered a hybrid form of 80 square-meter “maps” of China made from 1,800 jars of infant milk formula of differently colored labels, “Baby Formula 2013,” as a pixellated map of China’s thirty regions, whose creation coincided with deep worries about the safety of Chinese-made infant formula in China that made Hong Kong into a “safe-site” to buy formula–or his mapping China from fragments of Tieli wood from destroyed Qing era temples–which, as his repainted Neolithic vases, raise questions of art and cultural property.
The counting of the killed, as #aiflowers, which invited all to place a flower that remembered the children among victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that were consequences of shoddy hurried construction of unreinforced structures, provided a similar participatory focus and intent.
The map that Ai creates in @ Large is more metaphorical in nature, but similarly ambitious in its expressive aims. If situated in the buildings of Alcatraz island, the sculpture addresses practices of imprisonment worldwide–if it gestures, no doubt, to the growing prison population in the United States, as well as the probably under-reported numbers of the prison population in China.
A map of the total number of prisoners worldwide suggests deep affinities between two carceral states, according to Fast Company, using statistics:
When software engineer Stuart Sandine used data supplied by the International Centre for Prison Studies to map their distribution of percentage of the population imprisoned he created a slightly different map that shows the United States as the state most ready to imprison its own population:
5. It is striking that the global geography of imprisonment or disparities of incarceration–or even the quite shocking topography of incarceration in the United States is not the subject of this specific temporary sculpture, so much as the broad possibilities of resistance to imprisonment, much as Ai consciously participated in by his construction of the complex during his own house arrest. Ai Weiwei is less interested in manipulating the medium of the map per se. As his compatriot Hong Hao, than finding spaciousness in the prison’s very space. Ai’s @Large project aims to engage with a global geography of imprisonment far more ambitiously than Ai’s previous admittedly expansive works, by exploiting the totemic position of Alcatraz as a historical site of imprisonment and solitary confinement: if Alcatraz island is the site specific to the work, it addresses a global condition of circular resistance.
Ai, a dedicated decompartmentalizer was invited to Alcatraz Island to create what must have become an expansive work across several former carceral facilities, reworking the specific carceral institution into sites for viewing objects stages, so that the exhibition space becomes an occasion for reflecting on imprisonment through images, music, and voices of the imprisoned. Many of the works included, which might seem to be poorly or unclearly coordinated across the island and prison complex, were smuggled out of China in ways that exploited that their individual form and shape was not readily recognizable as Ai’s art, and were reassembled as a site-specific work in a site Ai has never visited. (The kites and pieces of Lego seems to have passed censors who did not recognize their maker or them as art; some were brought in the luggage of its curator, Cheryl Haines.) A sense of the spaciousness of artistic creation recurs in the prison complex through the placement of birds, dragons, and flying machines. The invitation to viewers is in a sense to participate in something like an extended reflection on the experience of imprisonment–and Ai, as a former prisoner whose possibilities for travel outside China is confined, includes himself in the imaginary museum of resistance to conditions of carceral confinement though out the complex.
The cultural remove of displacement inherent in a global economy that Ai has long addressed echo his own political engagement at a unique personal position in relation to and engagement with the Chinese government’s authority. Ai, who first made art in New York City as the son of the exiled poet Ai Qing, began a long campaign as an “oppositionist” artist–his work was increasingly censored in China as he became known as a serial blogger from 2005; his posts commenting on political events were censored, but, since it has been shuttered, Ai maintained an active Twitter account, @aiww, which jumps the firewall Chinese censors created on his blogs and microblogging after interventions on the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake of May 2008, including publication of the names of the 5,835 students who lost their lives in it–and the closure and destruction of his quite expensive Shanghai studio, demolished without official explanation in 2011. Ai must have enjoyed seeing the shuttered prison of Alcatraz island as something like an alternate studio, as well as an invitation to explore the reaches of carceral space, and indeed for remapping the reactions to the carceral in an extended series of works, starting from Lego mosaics on one room’s floor in the centerpiece of the complex installation he created for @Large.
The sculpture suggests something of a map of the experience of imprisonment and an extended reflection on confinement–focussing less on the network or geography of incarceration than the practices of resistance to incarceration, as a floating dragon made out of multiple colored paper kites which courses energetically through the “New Industries Building,” inscribed with words from those imprisoned or exiled from their lands, from Nelson Mandela, pictured on the ground-mosaics on the lower right above, to Edward Snowden, whose words recall resistance to the power of the state, in a room filled with other kites of birds or flowers, recalling the other residents of the island, and suggesting in a space once used for prison labor the cultivation of a craft or practice of resistance perfected within similar spaces of imprisonment themselves.
The liberating freedom of these kites that are positioned in “Wind” fill the air of the musty New Industries Building with a new spirit of liberation. As much as being individual artifacts or craft-like constructions, the most eloquent contrast between the painted paper kites and the structures in which they are exhibited suggest the very space in which individual meets the structure of imprisonment, or the archipelago of incarceration, as the space of imprisonment into which the visitor is filled with pieces of craft that recall the open spaces that surround the island:
The quite capricious bird-like kites that are oddly angled in the cinderblock room, and which had arrived in crate containers to disguise their origins or make’s intent, seem oddly liberated in their new space of display, which, even if Ai Weiwei did not fully participate in their hanging and arrangement, take wings in the carceral space from which one exits to watch birds reel outside, seem to gesture to the ability to expand resiliently within the facility of imprisonment itself.
The broader relation to the world, and global economy, to which Ai’s earlier work had gestured, gains something of a specificity despite the breadth of experiences of incarceration to which he gestures and attempts to redress.
@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz is on view daily through April 26, 2015, except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day