The next day was the reason for our whole trip: A visit to Ai Wei Wei’s @Large exhibit at Alcatraz Island. For those who don’t know, Ai Wei Wei is a contemporary Chinese artist and activist. He has been a political activist for many years in regards to human rights and democracy for China. You can read more about him here. He was banned from leaving China in 2011 after he was arrested for tax evasion, among other alleged crimes, so this entire Alcatraz show was put together by other people he communicated with. I just found an article that says he has since had his passport returned to him this past July. He’s been through a lot: his studio was demolished by the Chinese government, several people he’s worked with have mysteriously gone missing (assumed to have disappeared into police custody), he’s endured emotional and psychological abuse by the Chinese government, and he still continues to create art. All the details of the exhibition can be found here.
It was interesting to walk around the place, because most of the people had no idea the exhibit was there, or who Ai Wei Wei was. There were many information people standing around if you had any questions, which was nice, but I always wonder if people who came to see the place and not the art will find this interesting at all. I’m sure it will for some people, but I feel like most people won’t understand the significance of it. The Lego piece was amazing. It must have taken a zillion years to plan out and build.
Although the artwork dominated the rooms, there were details about the building that were just as intriguing to me. There were exhibits at every main building, so we spent a good portion of the morning walking around everything. There were guided tours offered, as well as headsets you could listen to, but we chose to go off on our own for the most part.One of my favorite installations was a music installation. Each cell had a different song playing. It was weird to sit in the tiny cells and imagine living there, having such a small space to stare at, day in and day out.
The more I read about all these people, the more I was grateful about living where I do, much as I might complain about it sometimes. But I can pretty much write a song about whatever the heck I want and I won’t be tortured for it. I can listen to and read whatever I want and not live in fear.
This next sculpture really confused people. Most everyone just glanced at it, wondered what it was about, and were too lazy to read or ask questions. Really people? It takes four seconds to read giant signs. (And I know art isn’t for everyone, but if you’re already there, take the time!)
There were a few more sound installations we walked through, and we also saw some of the rooms that were left the way they were when Alcatraz was a working prison. At the very end, post cards were scattered across tables and binders were available for anyone who wished to read about the individuals portrayed in the artwork. We were allowed to write a small note to someone. There were children reading about all these people, adults who’ve never heard of most of them, and it was really amazing to be able to participate in. All the postcards were going to be mailed to their recipients at the end of the show. After we had viewed the exhibits, we walked around the grounds for a bit. The gardens were my favorite part.
The views of the city from the island were pretty spectacular. Around lunchtime we finished and took the short boat ride back to the harbor and headed up to see murals at Coit Tower and the San Francisco Art Institute. Coit Tower’s murals are from another WPA project, while the Art Institute’s mural is by the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.
After all of that, we went off on our own again. Some of us were bent on trying to ride an old-fashioned trolley, so we walked around for a while to find one, even if it meant it was going the opposite direction from our hotel. But we managed to pack ourselves onto one along with like a million other people. It was totally worth it. Later that evening Ariel, Jessye, and I walked around Chinatown for a bit. And for my final photo, because San Francisco, I’ll leave you with this.P.S. This whole time I was saying Azkaban in my head, not Alcatraz. Almost the same thing.