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.