Alcatraz has been home to a motley crew of Confederate POWs, Apache and Modoc resistance fighters, bank robbers and bootleggers. For seven months, beginning in September 2014, the former citadel will house seven site-specific installations by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Tickets for @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz go on sale tomorrow, Friday, June 27, and with the island’s 1.4 million annual visitors, the exhibition is guaranteed to be popular.
Ai himself was imprisoned for three months in 2011, allegedly for tax fraud. It’s widely believed that Ai’s incarceration was retaliation for his vociferous critique, often utilizing social media, of the Chinese government.
Ai used his blog to pressure the government to confirm the death toll of over 5,300 students killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; he then helped compile a list of names of the deceased children. When the blog was shutdown in 2009, Ai turned his attention to Twitter, which is banned in China, sending over 100,000 tweets to nearly a quarter million followers. Just months before his arrest he initiated another “citizens’ investigation” on Twitter to identify those killed in a Shanghai structure fire.
Ai has become extremely active on Instagram this year, which is particularly suited for the visual artist and his fans. Unlike its parent company, Facebook, Instagram is not blocked in China.
Given heavy censorship and the government’s scrutiny of the artist, even Ai’s seemingly silly posts can be deeply political.
Earlier this month, Ai sparked a global meme when he posted pictures of himself and others holding their legs like rifles. Though Ai initially provided no explanation of the photos, as is often the case, he eventually revealed that the original posts were in reaction to the overuse of power in the name of counter-terrorism.
Others have used the meme to comment on gun violence, and many have noted the similarity to The Red Detachment of Women, an important Cultural Revolution–era ballet in which dancers use their legs as rifles.
With nearly 4,000 Instagram posts, it’s difficult to choose a representative sample of Ai’s photos. He includes images of new haircuts, artwork, meetings, and, like the rest of us, his cats. The works selected here show the breadth of Ai’s Instagram activity in 2014, which has become something of an artwork of its own, obsessively documenting the everyday. His cats are by far the stars of his profile, but his jovial personality almost always shines through, as does his steadfast political criticism, often cropping up in unexpected places.
Ai is banned from leaving China, so don’t expect to corner him on the opening day of @Large, but check out these highlights from his Instagram for a peak into the artist’s life and mind.
And be sure to follow him on Instagram; you won’t be disappointed.