Every year I take my seniors to Alcatraz Island as part of a unit of study on the prison system. Because Alcatraz is a National Park, there are some other perks, not to mention the unusual vibe that is created when a prison becomes a veritable themed park… And one of the perks is that they have revolving art installations on site. One year, there was a ton of period pieces memorializing the island’s film history (that year JJ Abrahams was also filming key scenes for his less-than memorable show “Alcatraz). Another year there was an installation by the former artist-in-residence at San Quentin, Richard Kamler, best described here. That was coupled with a restorative justice program featuring formerly incarcerated men and the world that awaited them.
Alcatraz has a history of not only being home to some of America’s most “dangerous” people, but also as a place of protest. In 1969 native groups took over Alcatraz, occupying it for 19 months.
For all these reasons, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei decided that Alcatraz would be an excellent location for his latest exhibition.
He was not wrong.
In creating a major conceptual installation while unable to leave China, Ai created a fascinating look into “ideas of confinement and what it means to be a modern political prisoner” – something he is all too familiar with. Integrating the motifs of birds and flowers throughout, there are many layers to explore throughout the exhibit.
The concept of the ‘caged bird’ is clear and in using birds throughout the installation and emphasizing the sense of the birds being trapped within the confines of the prison, Ai integrates myriad sociocultural elements. Anyone who has spent time in China is aware of the presence of caged birds, they are everywhere, ironically, often outside as the little old men who have them bring the cages out with them, effectively walking the caged birds. The five-ton birds wing constructed of Tibetan solar cookers emphasizes this feeling of being caged to nearly excruciating levels: it is viewed from the gun gallery of the New Industries building, an entirely claustrophobic situation, and is so large, I would encourage visitors to bring the widest angle lens they can get their hands on. Further, the only method of communication that Ai has consistently had access to while in China under state control and heavy internet censorship, has been Twitter (note the eyes of the dragon). And providing a way for the political prisoners to “sing” is one of the goals of the show, as Ai says, he endeavors “to address what happens when people lose the ability to communicate freely.”
Flowers complement the use of the birds (also not lost on Ai was the natural habitat of Alcatraz and its role as a bird habitat and its extensive gardens) in the exhibit. Alluding to the 100 Flowers Campaign of the late 1950s in which Mao Tse Tung suggested a “policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science.” Mao quickly changed his tack when dissent arose, and the ensuing crackdown had a direct impact on Ai’s personal history. In this exhibit, the flowers appear in the hospital (a part of the prison that is rarely open during tours) overflowing from the sinks and toilets. Pretty clear statement. Ai’s use of porcelain is intentional for its strength and fragility, as well as a statement on the plight of China’s porcelain artisans. Using the toilet is also a likely homage to Marcel Duchamp’s iconic work, Fountain.
Both the birds and flowers come full circle as you enter the dining room and see shelves of postcards, with the national bird and national flower of every country that is currently holding political prisoners (the same people depicted in Legos in the New Industries Building). The cards for each country are then addressed to all of the prisoners allowing visitors to Alcatraz to write to the individuals being held. And they are being mailed to all these individuals.
Birds and flowers. Enemies of the state and heroes of the people. Finding flight and a song and a habitat on Alcatraz… a seemingly uninhabitable place…
There are several audio elements to the exhibition also, and a short film explaining why and how Ai chose Alcatraz and the works were installed. The exhibition book is also awesome (and super inexpensive!.)
This is a once in a lifetime experience and absolutely not to be missed.