Right now there’s something special going on at Alcatraz prison. Political activist and artist Ai Wei Wei has a special exhibit up in the prison and if you’re in San Francisco, it’s an absolute must-see. Ai Wei Wei is currently on house arrest in China, so all of his amazing works have been assembled here with the help of volunteers. The most stunning of all, With Wind, is seen in the above photo. The amazing dragon is the first installation that you see on the tour and is actually a fully functional paper kite! More on that later though, I want to take you through the Ai Wei Wei night tour as I experienced it.
The tour of course starts out with a boat ride. I think I won the luck lottery on this one because it was a warm October night and completely clear. The views of San Francisco from the boat and from Alcatraz Island are, ironically, unparalleled.
Once you land, you’re greeted by a penitentiary sign and red spray paint. “Indians Welcome,” the graffiti proclaims. In the 60’s a group of Sioux occupied Alcatraz for a brief time in a political protest. The parks department has tried to preserve traces of this occupation all over the island, including this welcome.
The Ai Wei Wei Alcatraz exhibit tour is a special ticket and needs to be purchased far in advance. Our group was relatively small – about 20 people. The first stop of the tour was With Wind, a kite dragon that I mentioned above. You walk into this huge room and BAM, it’s there. The brilliant colors are absolutely breathtaking and it was fun to walk along the tail and see the quotes from other famous figures who have been persecuted for their political beliefs.The dragon represents personal freedom and the pieces were all constructed by hand. I just couldn’t get enough and was the last person to leave the room.
The next part of the exhibit is Trace. Trace displays the portraits of 176 people who have been imprisoned or exiled because of their beliefs – made out of 1.2 million legos.
The Refraction is viewed from the gun gallery where armed guards patrolled the large spaces of the building. It’s made from reflective panels reclaimed from Tibetan cooking vessels. Oh, and it weighs five tons! You also get to view With Wind and Trace from the gun gallery, something that was purposeful and meant to emphasize the disparity between the guards above and the prisoners below.
Something that surprised me about Alcatraz is that not just prisoners lived on the island. It was also the home of the prison staff and their families. The women kept flower beds and the children took a boat to school every day. Part of the general prison tour was hearing first hand accounts recorded by previous inhabitants of Alcatraz Island.
Stay Tuned is another portion of the Ai Wei Wei exhibit that is located in the main cellblock. 12 prison cells have been outfitted with speakers and stool and visitors can sit and listen to the words, songs and poems of people who have been detained for their political beliefs. You can hear everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Russian group Pussy Riot.
Blossom was beautiful and bizarre at the same time. The toilets, tubs and sinks of parts of the hospital ward have been filled with porcelain flowers. Parts of the hospital wing that are normally not open to the public have been specially opened for the exhibit. The work Illumination is an isolation room that was used for mentally ill inmates. Now, the chants of Tibetan monks fill the room. It was fun to learn that the chants were actually recorded at a monastery in Dharmsala, India, where I volunteered a few years ago.
By this time, the sun had set, lending a definite eeriness to the experience. I grabbed the last boat back to the mainland and once again enjoyed that million dollar view of the city that the prisoners in one of the most secure prisons that ever existed.
Do It :: The Ai Wei Wei Exhibit on Alcatraz
Through April 26, 2015
Reserve Tickets Far in Advance at:
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