Alcatraz Prison Refashioned into Gallery for Chinese Artist and Dissident

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by Olivia Waring
Ai Weiwei and Cheryl Haines – the FOR-SITE Foundation’s executive director – pore over plans in Mr. Ai’s Beijing studio. Image: Co.Design.

The Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is no stranger to incarceration, having been imprisoned by Beijing authorities for 81 days in 2011 for alleged tax evasion. However, his most recent stint “in jail” has unfolded under far more favorable circumstances. Mr. Ai is showcasing his latest work on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, which seems a fitting location for this former detainee to tackle “themes of freedom and confinement.”

The "@Large” exhibition, which opened in September and will extend through April 2015, cost $3.5 million to install and was funded in large part by the FOR-SITE Foundation, a San Francisco-based artistic nonprofit. The host museum will not charge any additional fees (beyond regular Alcatraz admission), and the artist himself will not receive a commission for his work. Among the pieces on display are a multicolored bamboo dragon-kite that undulates over museum-goers’ heads, a soundscape of quotations from famous dissidents, and the faces of various “prisoners of conscience” (Edward Snowden among them) rendered in Legos.

There were significant administrative and technical challenges associated with the installation: approval needed to be sought not only from the National Park Service and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, but also from the US State Department, given the artist’s sensitive political status in his home country. Furthermore, because Mr. Ai is subject to state-imposed travel restrictions, he was obliged to coordinate the entire exhibition remotely, relying on blueprints, photos, and over one hundred volunteers to help mount the show – a testament to the artist’s international clout. 

Appreciation for Ai’s art in the US is not confined to the West Coast, as a different exhibition of Ai’s work made a limited appearance at the Brooklyn Museum last summer. Highlights of that installation included “S.A.C.R.E.D.,” a series of intricate dioramas depicting scenes from his time in prison, and “Straight,” a haunting display of remnants of schools destroyed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Chinese artists have a long history of warm reception by American audiences, facilitated in part by Columbia University’s US-China Arts Exchange program, which has fostered collaboration and mutual appreciation between the two artistic communities since 1979. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond is currently hosting a collection of artifacts from the Forbidden City.  The mysterious Sanxingdui relics from the outskirts of Chengdu, China – which date to the 11th and 12th centuries B.C. – are slated to appear at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, until March 2015, followed by a display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The Oklahoma City Museum of Art recently inherited the “My Generation: Young Chinese Artists” exhibit from the Tampa Museum of Art, showcasing the work of China’s 27 most talented budding artists. It is hoped that aesthetic exchanges such as these will continue to serve as instruments of diplomacy between the two nations.

Olivia Waring is a graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities and a Research Intern at the East West Center in Washington DC.