After coming ashore at the dock and hiking to the top of the island, we are confronted just inside the New Industries Building by the snarling face of a dragon kite hanging overhead. Hand painted on silk in garish Chinese colors – lime green, chartreuse, deep purple, peach-red – the dragon kite is breathtaking for a second, until it isn’t, seeming instead breathtakingly small for the prison workspace containing it. No matter the long trailing body made up of smaller kites (some emblazoned with names of prisoners-of-conscience world-wide), the dragon, here called Wind, was imagined on a scale that is ultimately too small for the site. The kite feels like a design for a place the artist has never been.
snap under the strain of making them, as when the porcelain flowers in Blossom are said to refer, “ironically,” to the Chinese Communist Party’s “Hundred Flowers Campaign” of 1956. It’s unlikely that many Alcatraz visitors are aware of Mao Zedong’s political gambit in which he invited critics of the Party to come out of the shadows only to later imprison or execute them. The Chinese call this “qianqiangfuhui,” a forced analogy that is ultimately irrelevant. Even if Ai himself cited this connection, it remains an opaque reference for all but the fewest of visitors. The friendly (but insistent) logic of touring over-determines the meanings of Ai’s works on Alcatraz. One hears everywhere the upbeat sounds of artsplaining.
For-Site will mail them to the appropriate prisons, engendering what will likely be a disruption when prison officials are suddenly swamped with well-designed postcards addressed to their otherwise forgotten wards. Like overloading a server with requests, Yours Truly is a form of hacking. Ai’s art is not always activist, but his activism is usually a matter of an artist doing the government’s job for it.
Haines has spoken publicly about art “activating” a place. This utilitarian conception of art as a framing device for the otherwise forgotten or sublimated contents of a site is a well-accepted principle of the field of public art. In the sphere of public arts administration, where art is introduced into the public domain for the benefit of everyday citizens, the meanings of a place are an easier sell than the meanings of the art that occupies it. People are usually more interested in the stories of a place remembered through art (an on-site dream of place) than in the art itself (which often sweeps places aside). An art of place tends to concede its formal autonomy to the vernacular contents of a site – which is to say, a site is a place without memory, and a place is a site remembered. To the extent that art helps re-member a place, framing and interpreting its meanings, it has a memorial utility in the public domain.
viewer as a field of phenomenological experience. Piles, heaps, walls, floors, extrusions, holes, wreckage, the architecture of collapse – these formal and situational modalities constitute Ai’s formative vocabulary as a young New York artist in the 1980s. Those who think he has lifted these minimalist containers from American art don’t understand their Chinese contents: commonplace, tightly packed, reclaimed, prosaic, seemingly chaotic, traditionally crafted, and weighted down by the mass of themselves. His contents are the aspirations of the Chinese people.
Underlying all of Ai’s art is a rhetoric of struggle and a landscape of ruins. In this sense, his artistic orientation may be closer to that of Robert Smithson, whose convergence of Minimalism and earthworks nearly 50 years ago set the stage for an art of post-industrial ruin in which “the sites of time” did not give rise to the proprieties of public art, but to the “politics of the Jurassic Period.” He saw those politics – of geology mired in eternity – played out in the non-sites (the neglected, unnoticed, shadowlands) of late-industrial modernity. Despite its often slick, pop-cultural veneer as the world’s second largest economy, China still epitomizes the rusty state of late-industrial modernity. Ai regards his society as a ruin of totalitarianism, and himself as a ruin of totalitarian society. The best of his works have also been ruins – shattered vessels, uprooted trees, architectural wreckage from bulldozed temples, un-used bicycles, the names and ages of schoolchildren killed when their classrooms collapsed in an earthquake, documentation of the exhausted byways of Chinese daily life, and films exposing the unimaginative intransigence of state bureaucracy. It’s hard to think of Ai as activating a place as an artist –– his art is not that friendly. Rather, he breathes fire into ruins.
Ai’s best work at Alcatraz is located on a lower floor of the New Industries Building. Refraction is a massive five-ton likeness of a bird’s wing, its skeletal structure made from curving steel beams and its “feathers” layered from reflective metal panels used by Tibetans for solar cooking. Welded here and there across the wing’s surface are half-a-dozen or more large tea kettles with narrow pouring spouts, as if to suggest that the wing is generating power for a future attempt at flight. But the sunlight in this subterranean space, which can only be seen by visitors from the narrow elevated “gun gallery” that rings it, is pale and weak. And unlike most of the other works in @ Large, Refraction is large for the space containing it. It feels imprisoned.
During the summer and fall of 2012, the year following his release from custody, Ai worked secretly on an installation of six metal boxes containing realistic three-dimensional, lighted dioramas made from colored fiberglass. They depicted Ai and his captors at half-human scale, engaged in the routines of his daily life in captivity. He titled the piece S.A.C.R.E.D. Peering through slots in the sides or the tops of each box, one could see scenes of the artist, always pressed close by two uniformed guards, as he slept, showered, ate, went to the toilet, or moved within the small, taped and padded space.
The shrunken scale reinforced the sense of utter confinement, as did our inward peering of surveillance. From the outside, these six minimalistic boxes, set in two rows of three on the floor, recalled Donald Judd; the inside, with its posed, forensic, otherworldly, peep-show realism, was a direct reference to Etant Donnes, Marcel Duchamp’s final work. One takes from this association not the spark of aesthetic connection so much as a reflection upon the end – of one’s career, of one’s family and life. The placement of this work in the Baroque interior of the church of Sant’Antonin in Venice during last year’s Biennale underscored the sarcophagal stillness of the boxes, and the moments in dank, dead time they enclosed. Like the splayed female figure in Etant Donnes, Ai opened up a peep-hole into his darkest nightmare, something only he can remember first-hand, although he would probably rather forget. It is a testament to his will as an artist and activist that he dredged these scenes from his psyche, gave them order (i.e., S upper, A ccusers, C leansing, R itual, E ntropy, and D oubt), set them in a church and invited us to look. Two years ago, this might have been Ai’s last work.