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Flowers of Prison

By (March 1, 2015) No Comment

@Large: Ai Weiwei on AlcatrazAi Weiwei, Trace, 2014 (detail)
art installation By Ai Weiwei
with the For-Site Foundation
9.27.14 – 4.26.15
Alcatraz Island

The Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei smashed Han dynasty urns to make a statement on historical erasure and amnesia. He photographed his middle finger in front of, among other places, the Eiffel Tower, the White House, and Tiananmen Square. He photographed his wife lifting her skirt before Tiananmen Square. In 2011, he was arrested by Chinese authorities and held in solitary confinement for 81 days. He draws on this experience in a site-specific art installation that opened in September 2014: @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.

In May 2008, after a massive earthquake hit the Sichuan province in west-central China, Ai led a citizen’s investigation into the school collapses that killed thousands of children. Officials had told him the death toll was a secret. To learn the truth, Ai recruited volunteers via social media to visit the towns and interview the parents. On the first anniversary of the quake, he posted a list of 5,212 names of student casualties on his blog. This memorial doubled as an indictment of the government – because of graft, the schools had been shoddily built – and began Ai’s troubles with Chinese authorities.

Ai made his name in the art world when he served as a design consultant for the 2008 Beijing Olympics “Bird’s Nest” stadium. Another artist might have parlayed this fame into a lucrative career selling respectable artworks. Ai, however, sees the role of the artist in society as that of an activist. In particular, he advocates for freedom of expression and the individual conscience, which are the foundations of civil society. The day before the Beijing Olympics, he announced he would boycott the event and argued that the games had become a glittering cover for an autocratic regime. This boycott was similar to his work in Sichuan: it held those in power accountable to the people.

This unwavering belief in freedom and conscience stems from Ai’s childhood in exile. Son of poet Ai Qing, he was a year old in 1958 when his father was sentenced to hard labor for criticizing Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. The year before, Mao had encouraged citizens to openly air their views of the regime, only to turn around and crack down on dissident intellectuals. The younger Ai grew up watching his father scrub latrines and threaten to kill himself. He could not go to school. One winter in the frozen deserts of northwest China, the family lived in a dugout and scavenged for food. They returned to Beijing only after Mao died in 1976.


After Ai posted the list of student names online, authorities shut down his blog and put him under surveillance. In August 2009, he went to Chengdu, Sichuan’s provincial capital, to testify at the trial of Tan Zuoren, another earthquake activist who had been accused of “incitement to subversion of state power.” Like Ai, Tan had been investigating the school collapses and collecting the names of the victims. At three in the morning, police knocked on Ai’s door on the pretext of checking identity papers. They beat him up and detained him for twelve hours, causing him to miss the trial. Tan was sentenced to five years in prison.

That September, Ai went to Munich to prepare for his exhibition So Sorry at the Haus der Kunst. As part of the show, he used 9,000 backpacks in five colors to write on the museum façade in Chinese, “For seven years she lived happily on this earth,” quoting the mother of one of the Sichuan earthquake victims. When Ai arrived in Munich, he complained that the intermittent OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAheadaches he had been having for a month had become unbearable. Doctors found a hemorrhage in his brain, likely from the blows from the Chengdu police, and he successfully underwent emergency surgery.

Before the 2008 Olympics, Shanghai invited Ai to build a new studio in their arts district. In November 2010, the city deemed the building illegal and ordered it demolished. Ai knew that this was retaliation for his activism and in protest, he held a party, inviting his supporters to feast on 10,000 river crabs. In the Chinese language, the phrase for “river crab,” he xie, is homonymous to “harmonious,” which the government uses in its slogan “The realization of a harmonious society.” To many Chinese online denizens, this saying is used to justify the repression of dissent and he xie has become slang for censorship. The day of the event, authorities put Ai under house arrest without explanation and the fete went on without him. The studio was destroyed in January 2011.

That April, Ai was about to catch a flight to Hong Kong when he was arrested at the Beijing airport. He was held at an undisclosed location for 81 days and disallowed contact with his family. The government charged him with tax evasion and released him on the conditions that he did not give interviews, stayed away from social media, and could not leave Beijing. Within months, he was back on Twitter and speaking to the press. He can now travel outside the capital, but the government has not returned his passport.


Alcatraz hardly needs an introduction. It is America’s most notorious penitentiary. Between 1934 and 1963, it housed some of the nation’s worst criminals, including the mob boss Al Capone and the Birdman Robert Stroud. Many of the inmates were transferred there after they caused trouble at other prisons. The cells were primitive, guards stripped and beat
inmates, and in the early years, the prisoners could not talk to one another, even at meal times. Its location adds to its mystique: perched on a rock outcrop in the cold, brutal currents of the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz is within reach of the city and yet so far away.

Most of us know Alcatraz as the inescapable fortress we see in books and movies. But it has other, lesser-known histories. The Spanish named it for the multitude of seabirds that nest on the island. It was a military fort during the Civil War, part of the coastal defense against the Confederacy. Later, it held prisoners of conscience, including Hopi men who refused to send their children to boarding schools and conscientious objectors from World War I. And beginning in 1969, Native American activists occupied the island for nineteen months to protest federal Indian policies. It is now a major tourist attraction, drawing an average of 4,000 visitors a day.

The idea to stage an art exhibition on Alcatraz began with Cheryl Haines, executive director of the For-Site Foundation, a San Francisco organization dedicated to art about place. For her, cities are also settings to showcase art. She was opening a show in the Presidio when she saw the lights of Alcatraz and wanted to work there, though she did not yet have an artist in mind. In 2011, she visited Ai after his release from detention and asked what she could do to help. He wanted to bring his art to a larger audience and she said, “What if I bring you a prison?”

Ai describes himself as a “remote control artist.” Even before his passport was revoked, he often came up with ideas and has a team of artisans and assistants to execute the work. Because he cannot leave China, he could not visit Alcatraz and see the place for himself. Instead, Haines flew to Beijing to sneak him photographs, videos, and architectural drawings of the island. From his Beijing compound, he conceived seven site-specific pieces for Alcatraz, choosing materials that would not look suspicious to Chinese customs officers. The parts were then flown to San Francisco and ferried to Alcatraz, where handlers reassembled them as Ai supervised by videoconference.


I happened to be in San Francisco last October and went to see @Large. It was Fleet Week and the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration squad, practiced their acrobatics over the blue bay waters. In the distance, fog gathered on the summit of Angel Island, the lesser-known prison island on the bay; from 1910 to 1940 it detained Chinese immigrants under the 1882 Chinese Ai Weiwei, With Wind, 2014 (installation detail, New Industries Building, Alcatraz)Exclusion Act. I had been to Alcatraz a few years ago and thought the salt breeze, the cormorants in flight, and the views of the city and the bay must have intensified the prisoners’ isolation. The landscape heightened the cruelty of Alcatraz.

A colorful dragon greeted visitors at the New Industries Building, the former factory where inmates with privileges could work. Its eyes bulge with birds that resemble the Twitter logo. Instead of a traditional dragon train in red or yellow – which represent prosperity and royalty respectively – its body is made of kites hung from the ceiling and decorated with birds and flowers. A number of kites carry quotes from exiles and political prisoners, beginning with Edward Snowden’s “Privacy is a function of liberty” and ending with Ai himself, “Every one of us is a potential convict.” More kite sculptures of birds and flowers hover at the corners of the dilapidated room.

I laughed when I saw the dragon. In Chinese culture, the dragon is revered as a symbol of power and imperial rule. The dragon dance is often performed on Chinese New Year in order to bring luck and fortune. In With Wind, Ai transforms this motif of tradition and authority into a celebration of self-expression. The birds and flowers imbue the creature with the beauty of the natural world. They also reflect Alcatraz’s landscape: outside the prison walls, seagulls nest on the rocky shores. In spring, Ai Weiwei, Trace, 2014 (installation detail, New Industries Building, Alcatraz)gardens of roses, honeysuckles, irises, and many more I cannot identify come into bloom; during the penitentiary years, prisoners could work in the gardens and find respite in nature. With Wind makes a direct political statement, but Ai livens the work with a sense of play. This dragon may be trapped in a prison, but it lets our thoughts fly.

In the next room, Ai covers the floor with 176 Lego portraits of prisoners of conscience from around the world. Some of them are well known in the English-speaking world, such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Chelsea Manning. Most of the people Ai profiled do not make the international news. The United States is not beyond his critique: Ai includes six people from this country. A number are from Vietnam, Iran, and Bahrain. He includes 38 prisoners from China, the highest of any nation represented, from Uighur and Tibetan independence activists to the writer and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Along a wall, binders tell the stories of each of these people. This text is also accessible on the exhibition website.

I have to admit, I tried to remember these stories, but I only got as far as three or four names before my eyes started to glaze over. And as I begin writing this essay two weeks later, I cannot remember what I read. The volume of information that Trace presents is overwhelming. It highlights the conditions of political imprisonment, but if it is meant to educate, the average viewer is unlikely to remember the stories. It reminds governments that someone is watching, but it is unlikely to Ai Weiwei, Refraction, 2014 (installation detail, New Industries Building, Alcatraz); photo: Jan Stürmann, courtesy FOR-SITE Foundationchange their minds; authoritarian power is often convinced that it is right. The power of Trace lies in its insistence on witness: it seeks to record and remember what we are told to forget. It holds us accountable: it is when we forget that power can run amok.

Refraction, the last of the sculptures at New Industries, looks like a giant metallic bird on the verge of flight. It can only be seen from the gun gallery, a narrow corridor from which armed guards watched over prisoners at work. This vantage point situates the viewer in a position of power, only able to look down from afar and never intimately. The wings of this strange creature hold Tibetan solar cookers, a fact I gleaned only from the docent on duty. I suppose if it were not caged in this prison factory, it might fly like the seagulls outside. But as I looked at it through the broken windows, I thought it was not meant to move.


The other four installations are located in the Cellhouse, the main prison block at the top of a steep hill. In twelve of the cells of the A Block, Ai pipes in speeches, poems, and songs by artists and activists who have been persecuted for their words. Each work can only be heard from inside its tiny cell, where Ai provides silver stools for visitors to sit and listen. In one cell, Martin Luther King Jr. delivers “Beyond Vietnam,” a speech in which he linked racism and segregation to capitalist war machinery. In another, the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot shrieks “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away,” originally performed at a Moscow Orthodox church and for which three members were jailed. In yet another cell, the Tibetan singer Lolo serenades “Raise the Tibetan Flag.”

I did not know most of the languages Ai featured in Stay Tuned. I did not need to. I felt the passion, despair, and urgency in the rhythms and modulations of these voices. Some of the songs tell stories. Others are calls to actions. Yet others are lyrical evocations of life in prison. The original texts and translations are provided on boards outside each of the cells; they are also available, together with the recordings, on the exhibition website. The voices seemed to demand we slow down and pay attention Psychiatric observation room in Alcatraz Hospital, site of Ai Weiwei’s sound installation Illumination, 2014 to the lyrics, the story each tune seeks to tell, but I was too antsy to sit still. I wandered in and out of the cells, sampling moments from each song, creating a sort of mix tape of my own. Taken together, these disembodied voices haunt the prison with their defiance.

Ai uses piped voices again in Illumination, this time Tibetan and Hopi chants in twin psychiatric observation rooms at the Alcatraz Hospital, a full service medical facility adjacent to the cellblocks. These two “bug rooms” are more claustrophobic than the regular cells. The thick glass panes allow in little light. The doors are solid with small windows, presumably for guards to check in on their wards. Compared to the peeling paint, shattered glass, and crumbling walls of much of the island, these two rooms are well preserved, as if a place apart from the prison block. They are also at the heart of Alcatraz, away from the wind and salt off the bay, perhaps a metaphor for the intimate self we strive to protect against assault.

In this brutal prison, a number of inmates snapped – the official estimate is two percent, though it is likely higher – and were confined to the psychiatric ward. Al Capone, who suffered from syphilitic dementia, spent most of his sentence at the hospital. Ai was put in solitary for most of his detention and watched by two guards all the time, an environment designed to break down his Ai Weiwei, Blossom, 2014 (installation detail, Alcatraz Hospital)psychological defenses. Both the Tibetans and Hopis are people subjugated for their differences and persecuted for insisting on their cultures. I thought of all this as I listened to the incantations. I thought of Ai Qing, suicidal in the deserts of Xinjiang. We think of chanting as meditation and celebration, but here its rituals also become a stay against insanity.

In Blossom, Ai fills some of the sinks, toilets, and bathtubs of the hospital wards with white ceramic flowers. Their fragile beauty stands out amid the ruins of the prison. They are also likely a comment on the Hundred Flowers Campaign, that period Mao Zedong opened the Communist Party to criticism and later cracked down on dissidents. The multitude of flowers is signature Ai, reminiscent of the 10,000 river crabs and 9,000 backpacks, as well as the millions of handcrafted sunflower seeds he scattered on the floor of the Tate in 2010. For Ai, large numbers of handmade objects represent beautiful societies of individuals. In these white flowers I also saw an offering: to the sick, the imprisoned, the potential convict in each of us.


In the dining hall, directly below the hospital, Ai invites visitors to send postcards to the prisoners profiled in Trace. For him, the hardest part of prison was the isolation, the sense that the world outside had forgotten him. In Yours Truly, the handwritten notes would give the prisoners some human contact and ultimately hope. The postcards are pre-addressed and each decorated with a bird or flower native to the prisoner’s country. They are arranged, image side up, on two Ai Weiwei, With Wind, 2014 (installation detail, New Industries Building, Alcatraz)shelves. The binders of profiles are set on benches for visitors to browse. Between the shelves are bins for visitors to drop off postcards.

The postcards are a good idea in theory, but I wondered if they would reach their intended recipients, for prison guards would likely intercept them. Looked at this way, Yours Truly is an exercise in futility. And I have to admit too, I did not write a postcard. I thought about it and even held one in my hand – I think it was to Ethiopia – but I did not know what to say, what I had to say. I watched people look up the binders and scribble notes to people they would likely never meet. I wondered what they wrote. I wondered what they thought as they wrote. Did they think they were making change? Maybe these postcards are meant for us to pause and reflect.

“Any artist who is not an activist is a dead artist,” Ai says. For him, art is politics. He aims to effect change through his work. On one hand, this sentiment seems naïve; the likelihood that @Large would play a role in the release of political prisoners is close to none. The installations, while individually powerful, ultimately make perfunctory gestures toward Alcatraz and its sense of place, likely because Ai could not experience the island for himself. But Ai strikes authoritarian power at its most vulnerable spot: its sense of legitimacy and moral authority. He opens conversations on the nature of power and the possibilities of art. And @Large is a giant finger to the forces trying to silence him: he refuses to be cowed.

Teow Lim Goh’s poetry, essays, and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in PANK, Pilgrimage, Winter Tangerine Review, The Rumpus, Guernica, and The Common Online, among other publications. She has completed a manuscript of poems on the Angel Island Immigration Station.

Ai Weiwei, Trace (detail), With Wind (installation detail, New Industries Building, Alcatraz), Refraction (detail, New Industries Building, Alcatraz), Psychiatric observation room in Alcatraz Hospital, site of Ai Weiwei’s sound installation Illumination, Blossom,(detail), With Wind, (installation detail); 2014, photos: Jan Stürmann, courtesy FOR-SITE Foundation

Flickr photograph by Daniel Lobo