Touring The Rock is one of my favorite tourist attractions in San Francisco (the audio tour is first rate!) but today we were there for a different reason. Artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibit @Large opened last week and I was curious to see it. My parents arrived yesterday – what better way to spend the day than boating out to Alcatraz and enjoying some art? I was particularly intrigued because Weiwei had created the exhibit without ever visiting the space; he isn’t allowed to leave China because of alleged tax evasion; many believe he is grounded because of his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government. As we arrived to the dock, we saw these words from Ai Weiwei:
The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.
We were greeted by a large, brilliantly colored dragon head, with multiple bright circles following behind as the body. The dragon wove throughout the length of the hall where prisoners once did laundry. The bright swirls of colors mesmerized me – reds, blues, purples, yellows, greens. As I wandered, I noticed a few of the circles had words embedded in the patterns: “Our march to freedom is irreversible,” “…privacy is a function of liberty,” etc. I loved the contrast of the brightness of the dragon’s body and the hope in the words to the drabness of the prison.
We continued into a room which showcased over a hundred portraits of people who have been detained because of their beliefs or affiliations. All made of Legos. Tiny, 1×1 or 2×4 Lego blocks. Millions of Legos. Binders identified each portrait, and the reason they were detained.
Next we made our way to the Cellhouse, where we heard the sounds of those detained for their beliefs. Some were familiar – Martin Luther King, Pussy Riot, Fela Kuti; others were not – Ahmad Shamlu, Mahjoub Sharif, Victor Jara. Standing in the tiny cell, listening to the words that landed others in cells similar, an eery feeling crept over me.
We ended our tour in the mess hall, writing postcards to prisoners of conscience all over the world. Weiwei said that it’s easy to feel forgotten in prison – this was a small gesture to let prisoners know their acts weren’t in vain, and they weren’t forgotten.