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Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz: A dissident superstar gives voice to political prisoners

The dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has become something of a superstar in America. He is known for his provocative artwork, his outspoken critique of Chinese policy, and for his imprisonment by the Chinese government.

Ai has been under house arrest in Beijing since 2011, but that has not stopped him from making work internationally. He just opened a massive and unprecedented installation, @Large, on the former prison island of Alcatraz.

The new installation is comprised of a series of works set up in different parts of the prison; from the old laundry to a cell block once used for solitary confinement. In these spaces Ai calls attention to the faces and voices of those who like him -- are or have been -- political prisoners.

To get to Alcatraz, you must first board a boat that smoothly slips across the Bay -- offering up breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline.

The boat pulls into the dock, depositing visitors onto an island that is one of the most active ruins in the world. An abandoned guard tower stands at the entrance, with no one to watch the more than one-million visitors that come each year to visit a prison.

Outside a large industrial building that used to be the prison laundry stands the exhibit’s curator, Cheryl Haines. For the past few years she’s traveled back and forth from Beijing, helping bring Ai Wei Wei’s vision to life.

“These pieces they just fly in these spaces,” Haines says.  “There just…” she pauses, “...I’ll let you see for yourselves, I’m slightly biased of course.”

Just inside the doors of the old laundry, visitors are greeted by the face of a giant paper dragon. The mythological beasts multi-colored body is made up of independent floating kites that snake through the cavernous space. On some of the kites are quotes from well-known dissidents, including one from Ai Weiwei himself: “Everyone of us is a potential convict.” But the first words a visitor sees are from NSA leaker Edward Snowden, “privacy” his quote reads “is a function of liberty.”

In the next room the floor is carpeted in a giant mosaic, 1.2 million lego bricks join together to form portraits of 176 political prisoners: From Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Tibetan singer Lolo to American private Chelsea Manning, who leaked military documents to Wikileaks.

Alcatraz is federal land, which means in essence the government is sponsoring an exhibition that actively criticizes the United States. It is not the first time Alcatraz has played host to political criticism, although that protest was not welcomed with opened arms.

Howard Levitt, with the Golden Gate National recreation area, is giving a tour of Alcatraz when one woman asks why the phrase “Welcome Indians” is scrawled across the walls of the main entrance.

“Thats a great question,” Levitt says. “If you look up on the water tower you will see some graffiti, left over from the Native American occupation.” Levitt explains that from 1969 to 1971 Alcatraz was occupied by group of Americans Indians of multiple tribes.”

“It marked in many ways the beginning of the civil rights movement for Native Americans in this country,” Levitt says.  

There is a lot of history hidden here, amongst the crumbling buildings and peeling paint, says Greg Moore. Moore is the president of the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy.

“Everyone knows that Alcatraz was a place of incarceration,” Moore says. “What many people don’t know is that throughout it’s history there were political prisoners that were detained here as well as criminals.”

Moore brings up the example of 19 Hopi men -- who in the late 1900’s were jailed on the rock for refusing to send their children away to government run schools. Moore says Alcatraz is the perfect place for Ai Weiwei’s art; art that asks difficult questions.

“What does it mean to be a threat to society,” Moore asks. “What is a political prisoner, whose freedom of expression do we constrain and why?”

In a psychiatric observation room in the prison’s old hospital ward, Ai Weiwei has piped in Hopi Indian songs that echo off the walls of the five foot by five foot chamber. Here the songs inhabit the space, reminding visitors of the difficult history that reverberates between Alcatraz and native peoples.

Ai also employs sound inside the main prison building. Curator Cheryl Haines says the point is to bring the cold closed cells back to life.

“Alcatraz at one period in its history was a silent prison,” says Haines. “Prisoners were not allowed to speak to one another, so they would try to empty the water from the plumbing fixtures and they would communicate to each other from cell to cell.”

In this piece, each of the individual cells in this block contains a single stainless steel stool, welcoming visitors to come, sit, and listen. The voices of political prisoners -- some well known, others less so -- echo from small speakers embedded in the cells.

In one, Martin Luther King’s Vietnam speech, in another, Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlu. Further along, The Robben Island Singers, who were held in a place known as the Alcatraz of South Africa, which housed anti apartheid activists including Nelson Mandela.

And in the last cell, the political punk group Pussy Riot from Russia. Standing in the corridor outside the cells, the songs and voices mix together in the concrete and steel space.  

Haines says these sounds playing independently and in concert are meant to lift the silence of incarceration.  After all, she says, imprisonment is an act of silencing, of cutting people off from the world. It was like that for Ai Weiwei when he was incarcerated by Chinese authorities in 2011.

“He felt like he was forgotten, because there was no communication with the outside world,” Haines says. “He didn’t hear from his friends or his family or colleagues.”

It is that feeling of isolation that leads to the shows final piece. In the main hall, large racks are stacked with piles of postcards. Each is addressed to someone incarcerated somewhere in the world, currently jailed by their government and recognized by Amnesty Internationalas a political prisoner. Visitors are encouraged to write a message on a card and then drop them into old mail bins.

As the final act of this artwork, they will all be sent out, an attempt to communicate across distance. Just as Ai Weiwei has done by bringing his art to Alcatraz, a message to not forget the missing. 

Crosscurrents KALW archives
Sandhya got her start as a reporting fellow at KALW, working on award winning radio documentaries about crime and justice and education in Oakland. She reported on the 2012 presidential election in Iowa, for Iowa Public Radio, where she also covered diversity and mental health issues.