Dragons, Legos, and Solitary: Ai Weiwei’s Transformative Alcatraz Exhibition

In the prison’s cramped cells, hallways, and psych wards, sounds and visuals subtly shame the unjust.

"With Wind," an installation at Ai Weiwei's Alcatraz exhibition Shane Bauer
“With Wind,” an installation at Ai Weiwei’s Alcatraz exhibition Shane Bauer

By Shane Bauer in Mother Jones

There is a question that every prisoner ponders once the realization sets in that his freedom is gone: Can the mind be liberated when the body is not? It’s been a while since I’ve asked myself such a thing—I was released from an Iranian prison three years ago—but a Chinese dragon in a former prison factory at Alcatraz makes me think about it again. Its multicolored face is baring its teeth at me when I enter the cavernous room. In this space, prisoners washed military uniforms during World War II.

The dragon is the first of many installations in the art exhibition by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, called @Large. The beast is a startling greeter—its whiskers are paper flames—but the impression softens as I look closer. The long body, shaped like a traditional Chinese dragon kite and suspended by strings from the ceiling, snakes gracefully throughout the open factory floor, illuminated by the soft afternoon light spilling in through a multitude of little windows. Bird-shaped kites are suspended throughout the room. It is quiet. This prison room feels like freedom.

There is more to it. Every segment of the dragon’s long body is painted with flowers from countries that seriously restrict the civil liberties of their citizens, such as Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. Other parts of the dragon are adorned with quotes by prominent dissidents. One is from Ai Weiwei himself: “Every one of us is a potential convict.”

Alcatraz is an appropriate place for an exhibition about political imprisonment. While the island’s tourism literature focuses on hard-core criminals like Al Capone and the Birdman, it has also held hundreds of nonviolent political prisoners. Hutterite pacifists were put in solitary confinement here for refusing to serve in the military in 1918. World War I conscientious objector and anarchist Philip Grosser spent part of his year and a half on the island in “The Dungeon” where he subsisted on bread and water in complete darkness. Jackson Leonard was sent to Alcatraz in 1919 after distributing Industrial Workers of the World literature on an Army base. World War II veteran Robert George Thompson did time there in the early 1950s after joining the Communist Party USA.

Read more at Mother Jones

Author: konigludwig

progressive social democrat, internationalist, conservationist

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