@ Large: Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz


@ Large: Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz

By Heidi Rabben November 24, 2014

This text is likely neither the first nor the last thing you will read about @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Substantial coverage began far in advance of the insurgent artist’s opening in late September, and the hype has continued steadily since.1 So it is not without reservation that I contribute another drop in the bucket. But for a project that professes to be predicated entirely on freedom—of thought and of speech in particular—the vast majority of the @Large analysis is, at best, cautiously complimentary, and, at worst, reductive and descriptive. A number of factors may be contributing to this reserved reception, including the scale and budget of the project, the number of volunteers and assistants who assembled and help maintain it, the exhibition’s lengthy duration, and the nuance of its touristic setting. A section of the project website is even dedicated to these statistics, stressing the impressiveness of the undertaking.2 While surely significant, these elements overwhelmingly eclipse criticism about the artworks themselves. And beyond the stats looms an implicit hesitation about evaluating such socially conscious intentions, or perhaps further, of critiquing an artist–activist–celebrity like Ai Weiwei—a figure who, ironically, professes to invite and value serious critique. So in the spirit of one of the exhibition’s taglines, “Liberty is about our rights to question everything—Ai Weiwei” (which literally appears on the commemorative luggage tag), this review will question some of the core works and motivations in @Large.

Ai Wei Wei. With Wind, 2014; installation detail, New Industries Building, Alcatraz. Courtesy of FOR-SITE Foundation. Photo: Jan Stürmann.

Positioned as the centerpiece of the exhibition, the giant Chinese dragon-kite With Wind is the first installation visitors are herded toward. Hovering overhead in segments, the delicate, hand-painted craftsmanship is worthy of awe, especially when the natural light from the windows illuminates its rainbow of colors. Though visually stunning, the content does not live up to the container. Scattered among decorative panels are quotations from famous exiled or imprisoned activists including Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden, and Ai himself. Likely intended to provoke (“Every one of us is a potential convict”—Ai Weiwei; “…privacy is a function of liberty”—Snowden), they feel editorially heavy-handed when taken out of context and installed onto this skeletal apparatus. Several are also truncated in order to resonate more with the prison setting (which needs no further emphasis), rather than to transmit autonomous philosophical weight. Intermixed between the phrases are individual words like “undermining,” which, isolated and promoted as keywords here, reduce a rich and stimulating ideal to a trendy and marketable hashtag—an antithetical affront to the definition of the term itself. As a result, these one-liners exist more to be photographed, tagged, and recirculated than to make us think about With Wind’s stated tensions between freedom and confinement, cultural pride and shame.3 The installation’s seductive aesthetic enhances the impetus to transform these dogmatic statements into decorative tweets and instagrams, and as such, risks undercutting the important message beneath the image, showcasing Ai as a self-promoter more than a provocateur.

Ai Wei Wei. Yours Truly, 2014; installation view, Alcatraz Dining Hall. Courtesy of FOR-SITE Foundation. Photo: Jan Stürmann.

Yours Truly is assembled in the old dining hall of the main prison building. For this project, visitors are encouraged to inscribe and mail pre-addressed postcards to 116 of the 176 prisoners of conscience highlighted in another installation, Trace. Though one of the most poetic works in spirit, this piece also raises the most confounding questions. How can we be sure the recipients will receive the postcards? If they are received, how many of the prisoners will be able to read them? Furthermore, will they welcome notes from a group of tourists, the vast majority of whom are ignorant of our own incarceration problems within the country, let alone internationally? And what of the postcard format itself? Though the most scalable method of communication for the purpose at hand, a postcard is also the most emblematically touristic and impersonal form of correspondence in existence. What does it mean to send this symbol of freedom and mobility—standing as a marker of place and time, and primarily representing travel—to those whose freedoms are restricted?4 Will these notes remind the detainees they have not been forgotten? Probably, hopefully, and that is certainly a worthy cause on its own. But if the other part of this work is meant to highlight the “importance of communication as both a personal expression and a force for social change,”6 then this component fails, as true communication demands exchange. Yours Truly makes us realize that sincere interconnectedness is more complex than the gesture—albeit beautiful—of receiving hundreds of postcards from strangers.

Ai Wei Wei. Yours Truly, 2014; installation view, Alcatraz Dining Hall. Courtesy of FOR-SITE Foundation. Photo: Jan Stürmann.

Despite Ai’s evident penchant for creating visually compelling work, the strongest and most provocative components at Alcatraz are the sound installations, and in particular, Illumination. This piece occupies two of the most contested chambers of the prison: dual tiled cells once used to treat mentally ill inmates in the hospital wing. Here, the voices of Tibetan monks and Hopi tribe members intermix and bleed out into the hallways that lead to the isolated spaces. When we step into these chambers, the voices reverberate through our bodies, increasing our awareness of our physical relationship with these dubious spaces. The walls are cold and confining, the view outside obscured by distorted glass, and the realization that these rooms were once isolation and observation cells for their inhabitants is enough to feel palpably uncomfortable. With this piece, Ai confronts the politics of his native country’s position toward Tibet, the complex history of Native American prisoners at Alcatraz, and the mistreatment of those with psychological disorders. The conflation of three very disparate but equally subjugated minorities delivers a salient critique of historical and contemporary racism, nationalism, and the perception of mental health both in prisons and outside of them. Moreover, this work best embodies the stated goal of @Large: It is deeply responsive to and critical of the site, and its values against cultural and political repression are not only articulated, but more importantly, experienced.

The majority of the works in @Large are disconnected, either from one another, from the site itself, or from both.

Through its potency, Illumination reinforces the weaknesses of the rest of the @Large project, which would benefit from fewer ambitious visual spectacles and more of these subtle, layered, and poignant engagements. Instead, the majority of the works in @Large are disconnected, either from one another, from the site itself, or from both. While I greatly value the creation of a major project by a key international contemporary artist in San Francisco, especially at a time when the city’s relevance to the contemporary art world feels like it’s shrinking, ultimately the dream of Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz outshines the reality. The challenge of working on a monumental site-specific project with an artist who cannot visit the site is formidable, and FOR-SITE, an organization dedicated to site-specificity, should be lauded for confronting this challenge and initiating a dialogue about, among other things, the nature of site-specific work. But too often @Large relies on Ai’s lack of access to the site, which emerges as a primary subject in and of itself (“AI CAN’T BE HERE”), reiterated to a point where it starts feeling like a justification or an excuse for problems the project could not resolve.6 With its tracking of photos, comments, tags, and postcards, this project sets itself up to be measured by populist metrics of visibility, reach, and “engagement.” There is strength in numbers, and certainly, awareness and exposure counts for something, but whether or not these quantitative measurements will effectively impact or change any thinking about human rights is uncertain, and is therefore also a missed opportunity.


  1. A cursory search on a single media channel yielded over ten separate articles on this project, and social media has been fluttering about it consistently for months.
  2. See “@Large by the Numbers”. Seven monumental installations; a staggering $4 million dollars; 82 people helped create one work alone; the exhibition is on view for seven months; it is the first-ever art project on Alcatraz, both a National Park site and a monument to the inhumane treatment of prisoners in the U.S.
  3. Indeed, the encouragement of online social circulation is not subtle when the exhibition’s title co-opts the “@” symbol, the kite-dragon’s pupils consist of silhouetted Twitter logos, and rampant signage encourages #aiweiweialcatraz. With these choices, Ai is addressing not only social media’s role, but Twitter in particular, and in the very locale where it was conceived and is headquartered. It’s an interesting gesture, at a moment where much local blame and frustration has been directed toward the company, to remind us of its continuing and significant role in promoting international political rebellions and free speech, as well as its ban in China.
  4. Because Ai is still under house arrest himself, Yours Truly may be a projection of his own feelings of isolation and detachment, an attempt to satiate cravings for connections outside. However, it feels like a naïve generalization to assume this act will be universally well received.
  5. http://www.for-site.org/project/ai-weiwei-alcatraz-yours-truly/
  6. http://www.aicantbehere.org/

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