Ai Weiwei unveils art exhibition at Alcatraz prison
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Ai Weiwei unveils art exhibition at Alcatraz prison

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America’s Alcatraz - one of the world’s most notorious prisons and now a top tourist attraction - is to play host to an art and sculpture exhibition by dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

Opening to the public on the 27 September, seven new installations by Ai Weiwei, a Chinese activist and artist, will be on display throughout Alcatraz prison.

The multimedia exhibition, named @Large, aims to explore human rights and freedom of expression within this historic site.

@Large has been presented by the FOR-SITE Foundation, alongside the National Park Service and the Gold Gate National Park Conservancy. Such a high level of collaboration has been necessary as Ai Weiwei is not currently allowed to leave China, following an 81-day stint in prison back in 2011.

This in itself offers new meanings to the exhibits on display and poignancy to the location. Cheryl Haines, founding executive director of FOR-SITE commented that the “collaboration with him [Weiwei] is ideal for a project focused on exploring place, history, and the human condition…”

Each of the seven exhibits has a slightly different theme, although the overarching narratives are the concepts of freedom, flight, expression and repression. Several of the works are located in parts of Alcatraz that are not usually open to the public.

The Trace installation - prisoners of conscience, from Edward Snowden to Mandela, all crafted from Lego

One of the exhibits, named Trace consists of 175 portraits. Constructed from Lego blocks, each one represents an individual who has been detained or exiled because of their “beliefs, actions or affiliations”. This is just one of the ways that Weiwei gives a human perspective on imprisonment.

Stay Tuned is in a separate part of the prison, cell block A, and is an eerie sound installation. Filling Alcatraz’s corridors with spoken words, songs, poems, of individuals who have been interned - these feature input from the infamous Russian collective Pussy Riot and a range of other works recorded by people behind bars.

Ceramic flowers overflow from baths, sinks and toilets

In the hospital wing of the prison, Blossom, yet another exhibit, comes to life. Here, several toilets, baths tubs and sinks, have been filled with ceramic white bouquets. This installation is one of the many that can be construed as a political move, inciting thoughts of the ‘Hundred Flowers Campaign’ that took place in China in 1956, allowing citizens, for a brief time to enjoy free expression - later resulting in a crackdown.

In a statement, Weiwei said: “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.”

Hosting such an exhibition in Alcatraz, a place where Ai Weiwei himself may never be able to visit, sends a strong message. The organisers hope to give visitors a different way of understanding Alcatraz, more than just a place of incarceration and isolation, but a place with deeper running themes that evoke discussion and recognition.

The installations will remain in place until 26 April 2015.

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America’s Alcatraz - one of the world’s most notorious prisons and now a top tourist attraction - is to play host to an art and sculpture exhibition by dissident artist Ai Weiwei.
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