Ai Weiwei @ Large @ Alcatraz. (Weekly Photo Challenge: New)

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Good Evening:

True, Alcatraz hardly counts as “new,” having served as a POW camp for Confederate prisoners during the American Civil War (although adding enemy prisoners to an island that also served as a Union arsenal makes little sense to me–wouldn’t you keep the two apart?), but in 32 years and 355 days of life in San Francisco, I had never visited the place (!), so The Rock remained new to me. Mom’s in town, researching her next biography, and since her next subject spent some time on the island, and yes, her next subject is Al Capone, I escorted her to the island on Monday.

In addition to the usual attractions, if I may use that word to describe 5″ x 9″ x 7″ prison cells, Alcatraz currently hosts @ Large, a huge series of exhibits by Chinese experimental artist and activist Ai Weiwei. He has a record of criticizing the government of the People’s Republic of China, which gets him into trouble on a regular basis, and at the same times inspires his art–in other words, their repression of him makes his art better and his name more famous.

Seems a tad self-defeating.

The only access to The Rock comes via ferry. That proved a re-“newing” experience for me, surrounded by a hundred people who had never visited San Francisco before. Their stunned excitement at their first experience of the city reminded me of my own stunned excitement 32 years and 355 days ago (as of Monday). Given my hard-core fandom of the city, it doesn’t seem possible that I’ve grown jaded, but perhaps I did without knowing it.

Selfie-Stick: Word of the Year for 2015. No doubt in my mind.

Selfie-Stick: Word of the Year for 2015. No doubt in my mind.

I will avoid posting the usual touristy pictures, for the most part, and focus on the prison as interior urban landscapes, sometimes known as “ruins porn” among the more snarky photographers.

If you travelled within 200 yards, they opened fire. Not warning shots, either.

If you travelled within 200 yards, they opened fire. Not warning shots, either.

Green & White, Alcatraz Island, 5 January 2015.

Green & White, Alcatraz Island, 5 January 2015.

Operating Table in Alcatraz Hospital, 5 January 2015.

Operating Table in Alcatraz Hospital, 5 January 2015.

Alcatraz Kitchen. Supposedly the best food in the US prison system.

Alcatraz Kitchen. Supposedly the best food in the US prison system.

Coat Pegs in the New Industrial Building, Alcatraz, 5 January 2015.

Coat Pegs in the New Industrial Building, Alcatraz, 5 January 2015.

Tim 43. The docent didn't know if an inmate did this in 1943.

Tim 43. The docent didn’t know if an inmate did this in 1943.

Given that Alcatraz was supposed to be impregnable...

Given that Alcatraz was supposed to be impregnable…

...it's impressive how much damage nature has done since closure.

…it’s impressive how much damage nature has done since closure.

@ Large is split into four exhibits in two buildings. We started in the cellblock and saw several rooms where the toilets had been filled with white flowers sculpted out of porcelain, such as these.

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I felt a little disappointed, turning to Mom and saying, “The People’s Republic of China is scared of this?!” Made me reflect a bit on the hypothesis that totalitarianism is the product of wimpiness. However, we eventually found the other three exhibits in the New Industrial Building, and all I can say is WOW!

I simply lack the skill take a decent shot of a 200-foot long dragon kite, but I will write that this kite alone amounts to an excellent excuse to drop everything, make travel arrangements to San Francisco, and visit Alcatraz. The room that housed the dragon kite also housed smaller ones like this:

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The colors and details astounded me. The closer one looks, the more one sees. The next room held the most popular exhibit, giant portraits of imprisoned dissidents made entirely out of Lego blocks.

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I only regret that they didn’t build a causeway directly over the portraits. That would have give viewers spectacular views. One curious feature about the Lego murals is that the names of the prisoners of conscience were frequently illegible when you looked at them with your own eyes, but quite easily read if you looked at the view screen of your digital camera, and then became harder to read upon upload to a computer.

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In person I could not read that name (G. Tsang) at all. Right now, it’s a little difficult. In my camera’s view screen, easy. I have no doubt that this was Ai Weiwei’s intention, and certainly one of the most imaginative I’ve seen.

One nice touch: you can visit the “Gun Gallery” above the work floor and see the same art through broken glass (covered with protective plexiglass panels):

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The last room contained a giant sculpture of a bird-like figure constructed from solar ovens, mounted in a room just barely big enough to contain it. The great oddity of this artwork? You could not enter the room to see it! You had to view it from the Gun Gallery again.

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The idea consists of portraying the sculpture not as a work of art, but instead as an imprisoned creature trapped in too small a cage. I thought the concept worked very well.

On the one hand, I should have visited Alcatraz decades ago. On the other hand, I most certainly picked the best time to visit. @ Large is history after 26 April 2015, and most shows sell out, so if you want to visit, and believe me, you should want to visit, make plans soon.

Still, as a mediocre artist, I fail to see why one truly great artist can scare a government as powerful as the PRC. Maybe it’s because I am mediocre and therefore harmless. I read Ai Weiwei’s aphorisms, such as “To express yourself needs a reason, but expressing yourself IS THE REASON,” and wonder how anyone could fear this. Perhaps I’m too used to expressing myself to appreciate the act, even as I’m too used to living in San Francisco to appreciate that.

Perhaps something gets lost in translation.

Vonn Scott Bair

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7 responses »

  1. I am certainly going to visit this exhibit. It’s wonderful, in the truest sense of the word. I enjoyed your photos of the premises as well as the powerful art. I own a print of the dissident room from 1991, by Jane Holloway. So very different. BTW, I was very moved by the flowers in the plumbing installation.

    Thank you Vonn for sharing your eyes. Excited about your mother’s book, and beg to differ with your assessment of your own art.

    Keep writing and imaging V, please.

  2. Pingback: Things on Walls: Alcatraz. (Weekly Photo Challenge: Express Yourself) | The San Francisco Scene--Seen!

  3. Pingback: Someone Notices the Contrast of White on White: Alcatraz. (Weekly Photo Challenge: Alcatraz) | The San Francisco Scene--Seen!

  4. Pingback: Someone Notices the Contrast of White on White: Alcatraz. (Weekly Photo Challenge: Express Yourself) | The San Francisco Scene--Seen!

  5. You’ve got some pretty cool photos of the exhibition… I’ve seen documentary about Ai Weiwei on BBC the other day, is he free now ? and doing some new art work ? cheers from sunny Ireland

    • Swav: Excellent questions. A quick look about the web reveals that in 2014, he could not travel abroad, was restricted in his movements, and subject to constant surveillance. Or in simpler English, the PRC was giving Ai Weiwei more inspiration for his future work. Still seems a tad self-defeating. Vonn Scott Bair

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