Of course, the irony of my headline is that I don’t need to ask permission from anyone to be a groupie, and unlike my favorite Chinese dissident artist, I freely exercise my First Amendment rights, and no one is keeping me from leaving my country.
So, yes, I adore Ai, and despite the restrictive games that the Chinese government continues to play with him, he remains a brilliant artist, expressing a panoply of ideas regarding freedom, oppression, imprisonment and global community, and exploring a variety of media.
I was privileged in 2010 to see the Tate Modern show, in which Ai covered a huge floor with millions of handcrafted, life-size, porcelain sunflower seeds — his commentary on Chinese manufacturing practices. I was lucky enough in 2012 to see “According to What?” at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., one of the most talked-about museum shows so far this century. Would I pass up a chance to see “@large” on Alcatraz in San Franciso? Um, no.
Since the show wraps up on April 26, 2015, and the future display of the installations is up in the air — given that the historic prison setting of Alcatraz is one-of-a-kind — I wanted to share some of my best photographs. Here’s a rundown on the installations I saw (descriptions courtesy of AiWeiweiAlcatraz.org and the National Park Service):
“With Wind” — The artist’s take on a traditional Chinese dragon kite uses stylized birds and plants that are icons for nations having a record of violating human rights and civil liberties.
“Trace” — The floor of the New Industries building is covered with more than 175 LEGO portraits of people from around the world who have been detained because of their beliefs or affiliations.
“Refraction” — Visible through cracked windows, this massive sculpture calls wings to mind, only the “feathers” are solar cooking panels as used in Tibet, which has suffered under Chinese rule.
“Blossom” — Blending nature imagery and traditional Chinese arts, Ai transforms utilitarian bathroom fixtures into porcelain bouquets.
Not pictured are: “Illumination,” in which two psychiatric observation rooms resonate with the sounds of Tibetan and Native American chanting; “Stay Tuned,” a sound installation with music, poetry and spoken words by political prisoners; and “Yours Truly,” where visitors can write postcards to prisoners of conscience.
Ai’s witty and wry sayings and astute observations about freedom and human rights are displayed on placards throughout Alcatraz. Here’s a statement that reflects much of the impetus behind Ai’s work:
“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.”
@Large is an unforgettable and thought-provoking exhibition, one that’s easily understood even by casual visitors to Alcatraz. And it’s incredible to think that Ai orchestrated the installations without being able to leave China. That aspect, and the works themselves, create enormous potential to promote dialogue about human rights. The groupie in me says to Ai: Keep it coming!