Sam McManis

Discoveries: Art and agitprop in Alcatraz

As if the constricting feeling of isolation doesn’t hit you in the viscera the moment you set foot on The Rock, as if those cackling gulls don’t mock your confinement by swooping in and then taking flight on a whim, a perky, miked-up National Park Service docent hammers home the point mere steps away from the ferry gangway.

“The torture of being a prisoner of Alcatraz had to be, you know, seeing boats go by so close you could almost touch them,” the docent announced. “Seeing land so close, the beautiful sight of San Francisco had to be torture for prisoners. It was torturous being so close to a world-class city.”

OK, we get it.

Alcatraz, perhaps the nation’s most notorious abandoned federal penitentiary, was a lonely, forbidding and, yes, psychologically torturous place back in the day. Upward of 5,000 people a day come to gawk and snap selfies in front of cell blocks, admire the San Francisco skyline and, if prone to introspection, wonder what life might have been like here for some of our most violent criminals.

Now, though, there is another reason to fight the tourist hordes and make the seemingly obligatory trip across the bay. A new seven-part, mixed-media installation. “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz,” by the celebrated Chinese dissent artist Ai Weiwei, who’s no stranger to confinement and torture himself, opened on Alcatraz last weekend, an art-as-agitprop creation sure to raise as many eyebrows and consciousnesses as ticket revenue.

Choosing Alcatraz as his canvas is both fitting and, some critics sneer, too blatantly obvious. At times, it seems Ai is pummeling visitors with a metaphorical cudgel, with installations such as a Chinese dragon kite tethered indoors and a 5-ton metal sculpture of a wing that can be viewed only from a guard’s gun gallery. Certainly, there is scant subtlety in Ai’s overarching themes of exile and imprisonment, of isolation and alienation, how people worldwide are imprisoned or exiled for their thoughts and beliefs, for standing up for democratic ideals.

But need there be?

This is art for the masses, the most overtly political use of The Rock since 1969, when Indian activists led a two-year occupation. Nuance and esoteric profundity might appeal to art critics, but Ai here is going for a wider audience – ironically, an audience Ai will never meet, since he is under house detention by the Chinese government for various offenses, including tax evasion. But, unlike many of his other works, Ai is bent on educating and illuminating rather than striving for the sublime. Which is why, in the exhibition’s seminal piece, “Trace,” he uses the simplest of materials, the children’s toy, Legos, to lay out 175 portraits of people imprisoned or exiled because of beliefs, actions or affiliations.

Spread over the vast expanse of the long-abandoned New Industries Building, where Alcatraz prisoners once labored making everything from shoes to brushes for the U.S. government, “Trace” presents panel after panel of poster-sized head shots of detained activists painstakingly constructed of 1.2 million Legos. Among those depicted are well-known activists, including Burmese political figure Aung San Suu Kyi; Tibetian singer Lolo, arrested by Chinese authorities for recording an album calling for Tibet’s independence; and American whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who leaked classified NSA spying and data-mining information and then fled to Russia.

Yet for every Lolo and Snowden featured in the work, there are people unknown to the West, such as Mohammad al-Roken, a civil rights lawyer and professor of constitutional law in the United Arab Emirates who in 2013 was sentenced to 10 years in prison for defending in court members of a group believed to have ties to the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood.

The sheer amount of Lego tiles lining the abandoned building – fittingly stark and bleak with jagged, smashed window frames and paint peeling from pillars and the concrete ceiling – attests to the prevalence of political prisoners. One can easily learn about them by, say, clicking on Amnesty International’s website, but that doesn’t have the immediacy and vividness of a sea of interlocking cubes.

All of the “@Large” pieces, which also includes a sound installation in 12 cell blocks featuring recordings of, among others, the Russian punk band Pussy Riot and Sudanese imprisoned poet-activist Mahjoub Sharif, were Ai’s conception, said Cheryl Haines, executive director of For-Site arts foundation and the show’s curator. But Ai, of course, was unable to actually visit Alcatraz because the Chinese government has confiscated his visa.

So Ai, 57, had to rely on For-Site to erect and align the pieces, which were dreamed up by Ai in his home studio and, in some cases, manufactured by Ai’s staff in Beijing and shipped to San Francisco. On many of her trips to China to meet with Ai over the past two years, Haines said she assured the artist that his vision would be realized, by proxy. It was Haines’ idea to use Alcatraz as a canvas, but she said Ai was immediately seized upon the possibilities.

“There’s an interesting parallel in this exhibition about how a prison populace is controlled and not allowed to communicate with their community,” Haines said. “A lot of the imagery Weiwei uses here is about flight, how that represents freedom or lack of same. In ‘Refraction’ (that massive wing fashioned from reflective panels of Tibetian solar cookers), it addresses the sense of constriction in a wing that has been stilled, trapped inside a building. One of the things I like about that location is that as you view the artwork from the (guard) gun gallery, and you have a really palpable sense of what it must have been like to be detained here and constantly observed.”

Ai, too, was a constant absent presence. Tim Hallman, a volunteer who helped assemble the Lego portraits, said he worked from detailed computer printouts from Ai’s staff.

“Some, we had to disassemble because the artist (Ai) said he didn’t like the color scheme (after viewing online photos),” he said. “There were other times I had to disassemble a section because I counted (the Legos) wrong. It was an interesting exercise because you thought a lot about this: ‘OK, this is mass assembly, an assembly line. Is this sort of like working in a factory in China assembling iPhones, or something like that?’ ”

Given the exhibition’s controversial subject matter – for instance, is Snowden a figure of freedom, or a traitor? – National Park officials are quick to point out that no federal or public funds were used to subsidize the work. But the National Park Service and nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy did eagerly team up with For-Site and private donors to sponsor “@Large.”

Howard Levitt, director of communications and partnerships for the Golden Gates National Recreation Area, pointed to other provocative National Park displays, such as the Manzanar National Historic Site, which details the detainment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as examples of his agency’s commitment to presenting controversial issues.

“Alcatraz is one of those places,” Levitt said. “At its base, one of its major themes is incarceration. A lot of the pieces Ai Weiwei created are about incarceration, directly or metaphorically. We hope these pieces help access their own personal beliefs on them. Parks are places where we encourage people to form their own opinion, reach their own conclusions and find the meaning for themselves.”

Ai, in his artist’s statement accompanying the exhibition, is not so diplomatic. He writes that not only have his words and images been censored online and in the China’s official media, his identity has been expunged from his own exhibits at home. He calls upon the 5,000 people a day who visit Alcatraz to both reflect upon and amplify his work’s message, because “Freedom for me is not a fixed condition but a constant struggle.”


The exhibition runs daily through April 26. While “@Large” is free, you must purchase a $30 ferry ticket to the island from Pier 33 in San Francisco. To reserve a spot on the tour and ferry, go to or call (415) 981-7625.