The title of international art star Ai Weiwei’s installation on Alcatraz, @Large, is a contradiction, since the artist himself is anything but. Ai was imprisoned by Chinese authorities for 81 days in 2011, ostensibly on tax-related charges, and his travel is still restricted to his native China. The unusual exhibition on the site of the famous penitentiary opens this weekend and explores themes of freedom and imprisonment. “The idea of freedom is not just a concept,” Ai told KQED, referring to prisoners of conscience around the world who suffer confinement only because “they want to change society.”
Planning and set-up of the installation was a labyrinthian affair, coordinated across continents, complicated by multiple layers of jurisdiction and permission and requiring more than 100 volunteers and staffers. KQED visited the site earlier this month and came back with footage that shows some of the works in process: Trace, formed from over 1 million Lego blocks, offers portraits of 176 prisoners of conscience from around the world. With Wind, built from multiple kites created by Chinese artisans, offers quotations from dissidents. Stay Tuned, an audio piece, fills individual cells with the words and music of Pussy Riot, Fela Kuti, Martin Luther King and others imprisoned for their views. Refraction, composed of Tibetan solar cookers, evokes a bird’s wing and associated ideas both of the freedom of flight and of the many birds who make their home on Alcatraz island.
Funding for coverage of arts that explore social issues is provided by the California Arts Council.