By Hannah Onstad
In the New Industries Building, once used for prison labor, a Chinese dragon kite beckons with welcome, exuberant in color, affixed in stasis—and so we are transported into the exhibition space of Ai Weiwei’s museum-like installation on Alcatraz—a mix of portraiture in Lego assemblage, splashes of color, monochrome blossoms, overt and surreptitious messages among the vestiges of mythical birds grounded and confined.
The confrontation begins at the start of the exhibition as visitors come face to face with the massive dragon as it snakes through the opening room, coiled and ready to spring, this dragon wants to stream out the double doors, out of captivity. Bearing invitation to ominous acts or actions, the dragon’s message is one we don’t normally associate with welcoming the new year: words like “breaking, disobeying, damaging, plotting, waging, undermining” are subtly woven into the fabric of the panels. This new year is upon us, and timely, as a contingent of visitors to the exhibition wore paper tributes tacked to their clothing with names and images of Rashida McBride, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and others.
“Privacy is a function of liberty.”
— Edward Snowden
Simple missives, each an economy of words, like a quote from Edward Snowden, Irom Chanu Sharmila, or Nito Alves, hang from intermittent panels, belying the immense sacrifice of those who have risked their lives for freedom of expression, daring visitors to ponder what it means to take the privilege of the First Amendment for granted.
In the darkened basement, “Refraction” sits grounded and fragmented, composed of more than 60 solar cooking panels, festooned with tea kettles, a poignant symbol to the Tibetan people’s dependence on the whims of the sun for cooking. Viewed only from a distance the massive weight of the skeletal armature feels like the broken and forgotten fuselage from the wreckage of a doomed flight.
Everywhere the exhibit balances beauty with resonant messages invoking intensity and a passionate look at freedom of expression and freedom of movement as meditations for daily life, replete with references to birds, homages to national blossoms of imprisoned radicals and the desire for flight, all of which are emblematic of the times, the history of the Rock—from its brutal past to its symbolic stand for Indian justice—to its current use as a bird refuge and tourist haven. For Ai Weiwei every effort imbues economy and intent, and he does not waste the opportunity to awaken Alcatraz’s boatloads of annual visitors to the beauty and privilege of freedom.
About this Blog
Written by Hannah Onstad, unless specified otherwise. Occasionally, posts here have been previously published elsewhere, and if so, that is noted at the top.