The seven installations commissioned by the FOR-SITE Foundation for @Large include:
• With Wind, New Industries Building: This large-scale installation, located in the building once used for prison labor, features a contemporary version of the traditional Chinese “dragon kite,” a large kite handmade by Chinese artisans in collaboration with Ai’s studio. Scattered around the room are other kites decorated with stylized birds and flowers, which speak to the natural environs of Alcatraz Island—an important bird habitat—and reference 30 nations with serious records of restricting their citizens’ human rights and civil liberties. The position of the kites—trapped inside a building, unable to fly—suggests the powerful contradiction of freedom and restriction.
• Trace, New Industries Building: 175 portraits, constructed from LEGO® bricks, are laid out on the floor. Each portrait represents an individual who has been imprisoned or exiled because of his or her beliefs, actions, or affiliations.
• Refraction, New Industries Building: Using the imagery of flight to evoke the tension between freedom and confinement, this monumental installation—weighing more than five tons—is modeled after a bird’s wing. The artwork is composed of reflective panels originally used on Tibetan solar cookers.
• Stay Tuned, A Block: Stay Tuned invites visitors into 12 individual cells in A Block, where they can sit and listen to spoken words, poetry, and music by people who have been imprisoned for the creative expression of their beliefs—as well as works created under conditions of incarceration. Each cell features a different recording, such as works by the Russian punk band Pussy Riot and the South African anti-apartheid activists Robben Island Singers.
• Illumination, Hospital (Psychiatric Observation Cells): The psychiatric observation cells, used for the isolation and observation of mentally ill inmates, resonate with chanting recorded at a Buddhist monastery and a traditional song of the Hopi tribe. In the 19th century, the Hopi, along with other American Indian Tribes, were subjected to a program of forced 'Americanization." In 1895, 19 of them were imprisoned here for a year.
The installation of chants raises an analogy between subjugated peoples and those who have been classified as mentally ill—both often dismissed, deprived of rights, confined, and observed. Illumination speaks to the profound role of chanting as a source of comfort, strength, and identity under severe circumstances.
• Blossom, Hospital: With intricately detailed encrustations of ceramic flowers, Ai transforms the utilitarian fixtures (sinks, toilets, and tubs) in several hospital ward cells and medical offices into porcelain bouquets. The flowers, rendered in a cool and brittle material could be understood as an ironic reference to China’s famous Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, a brief period of government tolerance of free expression, immediately followed by a severe crackdown against dissent.
• Yours Truly, Dining Hall: In this interactive work, visitors are encouraged to write postcards addressed to some of the prisoners represented in Trace. The cards are adorned with images of birds and plants representing the nations where the prisoners are held. Ai has spoken of the deep feeling of isolation that afflicts incarcerated people and the fear that their causes have been forgotten.
Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz is organized like your high school English papers - find out what the teacher wants, tell the teacher what you are going to say, say it and tell them again. The installation is huge, overwhelming, chaotic, and lacks nuance and in some cases, historical accuracy. Of course, it's this season's must see show.
I realized that Ai's images didn't make any sense without extensive text. But I have a real problem with that - if the visual doesn't convey the message, is it really art - or, in this case propaganda that could have just as easily been written in a book. Now I agree with many of Ai's ideas about political prisioners, the lack of democracy around the world and the totalitarian state as well as the injustices of the past.
BUT to link that with the criminals who were held on Alcatraz and make no distinction between them, the actions taken during Alcatraz's over 100 year history and now is sloppy history, If not sloppy art making.
For more about some issues with the exhibit: http://www.examiner.com/article/ai-weiwei-s-songs-of-freedom-on-alcatraz