When I'm in between jobs and have time on my hands, I love to take advantage of the free time to explore the city. Most of the time, I travel alone since my friends are at work or home caring for their children. I don't mind seeing exhibits solo because it allows me the space to become involved with the show and sometimes (as was in the case of this particular show) become very emotional. Spoiler alert! If you haven't seen this show and are planning to go, I must warn that I am going to show much of what the exhibit has to offer.
On a whim, I bought an Early Bird ticket to see the Ai Wei Wei exhibit at Alcatraz. I paid a bit more to bypass the general flow of traffic (well worth it) and have a private guide scoot me up to the good stuff before anyone else got there. She told me that it was the first time EVER that she only had one person in her group—lucky me!
So on this blustery and foggy Tuesday morning, my guide and I stepped into the New Industries Building where the exhibit begins with the With Wind installation. Whoa. The light, the blast of color, the contrasting surroundings. Incredible! I felt very privileged to be here before anyone else and also to be in this room alone with these beautiful, hand painted kites. The colors and motifs are chosen from the countries' flags where the prisoners of conscience are being held.
"By confining the kites inside a building once used for prison labor, the artist suggests powerful contradictions between freedom and restriction, creativity and repression, cultural pride and national shame. he also offers a poetic response to the layered nature of Alcatraz as a former penitentiary that is now an important bird habitat and a site of thriving gardens." (quote: from For-Site.org)
Continuing into the next room, we approach the installation called Trace. Laid out on the floor is a vast sea of faces made of individual lego pieces which were hand assembled in squares and pieced together like a quilt. The portraits depict 176 prisoners around the world who have been exiled or incarcerated because of their beliefs or affiliations. Ai Wei Wei calls them “heroes of our time.” It was very moving for me to see these faces and not recognize most of them. I was awed by the sheer number of them, and by the way they were portrayed in this confined space. Literally brought tears to my eyes.
The last exhibit in this building is entitled Refraction. It is a large metal wing weighing several tons, made up of reflective solar panels. The theme of "confined freedom" continues here where "this piece uses imagery of flight to evoke the tension between freedom—be it physical, political, or creative—and confinement. The weight of this piece keeps it earthbound, but one might imagine its array of solar panels silently mustering energy, preparing for takeoff."
The confinement of the guard's walkway where one is forced to view the work through cracked and rusted window panes is noticeable; and the irony of the glowing EXIT sign is not lost on me in this moment.
The next series of works are found in the A block building. The Blossom sculptures are on display in the hospital ward and are made up of an abundant and delicate array of porcelain flowers. "The work could be seen as symbolically offering comfort to the imprisoned, as one would send a bouquet to a hospitalized patient. The profusion of flowers rendered in a cool brittle matieral could also be an ironic reference to China's famous Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, a brief period of government tolerance for free expression that was immediately followed by a severe crackdown." (quote: For-Site.org)
The last exhibit that I participated in is called Yours Truly. You are able to correspond directly with any of the listed prisoners by filling out a postcard (they are adorned with foliage and birds from each country of the incarcerated). There is a binder with descriptions of the captives and their stories and you may write any message to any prisoner of your choosing. The staff will mail the pre-addressed cards for you for free. Whether it reaches them or not, will remain unknown although it has been recorded that many do reach them and are greatly appreciated. Around 6 or so prisoners have been released since the beginning of this exhibit.
Here's another excerpt of the description from the For-Site website:
"Ai Wei Wei has spoken of the deep feeling of isolation that afflicts incarcerated people. He says that political prisoners often fear that they — and the causes they fought for — have been forgotten by the outside world. This work is a response to those concerns, reminding detainees that they are remembered — and reminding exhibition visitors of the detainees’ individuality and humanity. In the spirit of free expression, visitors may write any message they wish. Yours Truly brings home ideas at the heart of the exhibition: the responsibilities that we all bear as members of a community, and the importance of communication as both personal expression and a force for social change."
To know more about these as well as a few remaining pieces in the show, I would recommend A) Go to see it in person if you can or B) Read more about it on the For-Site.org website.
It was an incredible show and day all around. I felt all sorts of emotions—from awed and fulfilled, to sad to inspired and hopeful.