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@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

San Francisco. Through April 26, 2015

For 20 years on the northern end of Alcatraz Island, “privileged” inmates in the nation’s toughest prison toiled on the factory floors of the New Industries Building under the gaze of guards in a raised gun gallery. Today, visitors can peer down from the gallery onto the colorful portraits of more than 175 prisoners of conscience from around the world. Painstakingly assembled by volunteers from more than a million Lego bricks based on instructions from Ai Weiwei’s Beijing studio, this sprawling series of mosaics, titled Trace, is just one of seven ambitious site-specific installations by the famed artist and activist.

Currently forbidden from leaving China, Ai has never visited Alcatraz. These installations were developed remotely with the support of the FOR-SITE Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to art about place, in partnership with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

Trace, 2014. Photo: Jan Störmann / FOR-SITE Foundation.​

The exhibition explores the theme of freedom in manners that range from the abstract to the didactic but that are always poignantly calibrated to the built space. A five ton mechanical wing remains trapped and flightless on the factory floor; a writhing Chinese dragon kite peers out the entrance toward the ocean; ceramic flowers bloom in hospital bathroom fixtures. Individual and isolation cells resonate with sound installations, bringing visitors in touch with the music and voices of the persecuted through visceral encounters with spaces in Alcatraz not normally opened to the public. Finally, in the prison’s dining hall, visitors are invited to write a postcard addressed to one of the prisoners depicted in Trace, transforming the prosaic exit activity at many tourist sites into a moment when we are asked to consider our own responses and our place in the world.

Go to @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz exhibition page.

Gallery of With Wind on view at @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

With Wind, 2014. Photo: Jan Stürmann / FOR-SITE Foundation.
With Wind, 2014. Photo: Jan Stürmann / FOR-SITE Foundation.
With Wind, 2014. Photo: Jan Stürmann / FOR-SITE Foundation.
With Wind, 2014. Photo: Jan Stürmann / FOR-SITE Foundation.
With Wind, 2014. Photo: Jan Stürmann / FOR-SITE Foundation.
With Wind, 2014. Photo: Jan Stürmann / FOR-SITE Foundation.
With Wind, 2014. Photo: Jan Stürmann / FOR-SITE Foundation.
With Wind, 2014. Photo: Jan Stürmann / FOR-SITE Foundation.