Alcatraz is a severe, depressing place. I was glad to have made my first visit to the prison-turned-national-park in time with the @Large exhibit by Ai Wei Wei. His artwork honors dissidents who have risked their personal freedom, and even their lives, for greater causes. The exhibits infuse color, longing and hope into a site that otherwise indulges a grotesque fascination with murderers and thieves who’d once been held here.
It’s rather bizarre to interpellate viewing the Ai Wei Wei exhibits with the historical tour of the prison. @Large lets the cry of courage and discontentment ring out in the holding cells; the Alcatraz audio tour records the screeching of knives as inmates attempt their violent escapes. The dissonance is extremely eerie. And so, all the more, I appreciated Ai Wei Wei’s art and message, the interactive and accessible nature of the exhibits, and how they draw the individual into the dissidents’ stories and struggles.
My favorite interactive element of the exhibit was the briefing books available surrounding the Lego tiles of “Trace,” which featured short bios about each person honored in these icons. Later, at the exhibit’s final stop, “Yours Truly,” these books are made available again. Visitors can pick up a postcard pre-addressed to one of the people featured in “Trace” who is currently being detained. I’ve been to a number of art exhibits that attempt to create interactive, multimedia experiences, and most of the time they’ve felt somewhat forced. This, though, was a very organic reprisal and really drew me in to the story of the Kazakh journalist whose face I’d seen, whose bio I read, and to whom I was hoping my somewhat canned lines of encouragement would get through. What could I possibly say to him that would sound any less than trivial? “Hang in there; keep up the good work”?
But I put my sincere best wishes into that postcard, hoping it would give him at least some measure of comfort where he is detained, hopefully in facilities a little less depressing than what I’d just walked through.
The entrance to the hospital ward, normally closed to the public, warns that the paint contains lead. Needless to say, I breathed a deep sigh of relief once I left the ward and stepped out of the building into the sunlight.
I found the Alcatraz visit to be a discomfiting, disjointed experience. Here, the destructive lives and demise of criminals are commemorated in a form of voyeuristic tourism that is redolent of yellow journalism. Meanwhile, Ai Wei Wei’s art calls into question the justice systems that perpetrate injustice. I struggled to reconcile the two themes, because the oppressiveness of the place is so entirely palpable. And yet, though there is little that is redemptive inside these walls, artwork can flourish within their confines.
“When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.”