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Ai Weiwei @ Alcatraz

With Wind, 2014, installation detail, New Industries Building 
It is by now common knowledge that on April 3, 2011, Ai Weiwei was plucked from a line in the Beijing airport and placed for 81 days in police and military custody, mostly in a small, Spartan room with two soldiers standing at attention within arm’s length of his body 24 hours a day until he was released. He was charged with tax evasion, but was continuously interrogated about “subversion of state power.” Sleeping between two and five hours a night, he lost 28 pounds.  Unattributed rumors, that he had been physically brutalized, were everywhere online, but his suffering was primarily a brutal loss of privacy, autonomy, and contact with family and friends. 
During that internment Chinese authorities confiscated Ai’s passport. Thus, he cannot travel outside China; he remains mostly in Beijing.   Perhaps for that reason, Ai “agreed immediately” when For-Site founder and gallerist Cheryl Haines suggested that he create art for Alcatraz. The result was @ Large, a discursive exhibition composed of seven discreet installations occupying various spaces – for labor, for eating, for isolation – throughout the infamous federal prison. The works were designed and produced at Ai’s Beijing studio, shipped to the Bay Area, and installed in specific locations on Alcatraz by assistants and volunteers. Ai has noted publicly that not being able to see the site for which he conceived his works has been the biggest handicap he has ever faced as an artist. Just so, one senses a misalignment between the art and the place, despite the curatorial effort to vouch for their site-specificity. If Ai had been able to take the place’s measure in person — especially after having been interned — would he have done some things differently, or not at all, or new things entirely? 
Trace, 2014, installation detail. New Industries Building. Photo: Jeff Kelley

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.

Further inside the New Industries Building a more cavernous space opens up, its grey cement floor covered in a series of vast rectangular sheets whose white plastic surfaces were decorated with colorful geometric patterns of squares, rectangles, and diamonds, each framing a portrait – wanted-poster style – of an individual currently imprisoned somewhere in the world for political reasons. There are 176 of these mug shots, all but a few unfamiliar to most of us. The glistening sheets that bear their Pop-style likenesses are composed, charmingly, and stunningly, from countless tiny Legos, and are collectively titled Trace.  Up close, the interconnected, geometric patterns formed by these little blocks are elegantly suggestive of the interstitial anonymity – the cracks – into which these men and women have fallen. The closer we look, the farther away they feel. Inspired by his young son playing with Legos on the floor, Ai has laid at our feet a kind of puzzle that is at once child-like in its intimacy and Orwellian in its anonymity. While this frisson was powerful, Alcatraz – dank and hardhearted, paint peeling off the concrete columns, pallid with musty air and infused with a strained half-light  – enervates the radiance of the piece. 
Trace, detail
Haines, who has represented Ai through her eponymous gallery (Haines Gallery) since 2009, organizes projects to install site-specific works by various artists and architects in such well-regulated places as the Presidio and Fort Point. Her projects, including Presidio Habitats and International Orange, (celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge) among others, have been visionary affairs and logistical operas – interventions with a light touch. 
A light touch was required at Alcatraz, a national park. Ai’s crew and volunteers were not allowed to alter the site, so the forms of his interventions were necessarily reversible: anything laid down (the Legos), hung up (the dragon kite), or placed in something (bouquets of  “intricately detailed encrustations of ceramic flowers” in the old hospital ward sinks and toilets) could be picked up, lowered, or carefully lifted away, leaving no trace of the artist. 
The opposite of no-trace aesthetics, however, is the presence of too much interpretation. All along the route we are offered guidance by docents and wall text that feels, at best, like socio-political context for this conjunction of art and place, and, at worst, like a museum-style tour of the artist’s intentions. We hear the recorded sounds of Hopi tribal singing coming from an isolation cell, and are told that Hopi men were once imprisoned at Alcatraz for resisting the US Government re-education of their children – a sad historical fact intended to demonstrate the site-specific meaningfulness of the artist’s work. But sometimes the connections

Blossom, 2014, installation detail, Alcatraz Hospital

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. 

One of the best pieces at Alcatraz is also the most disruptive. Yours Truly, set in the Dining Hall, is a beautifully handcrafted wooden postal station from which visitors are invited to send pre-designed postcards to “prisoners of conscience” at selected prisons throughout the world. Each card is decorated with an image of either a bird or a plant (one can’t help but think of traditional Chinese bird and flower painting) from the home countries of some of the detainees pictured in the Lego portraits. In the exhibition’s first month, 20,000 postcards were collected by For-Site, and 150,000 such cards are expected by April 26th, when @ Large closes to the public.  After engaging visitors and gathering their often-heartfelt missives to the disappeared,

Yours Truly, installation detail, 2014, Alcatraz dining hall, 

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. 

Some of the @ Large installations draw meaning from the site – Alcatraz – the Hopi voices in particular. The ceramic bouquets as well, gurgling up, as they seem to do, from the plumbing. The Lego portraits utilize the vastness of the floor, but refer to political prisoners at large. The dragon kite reminds the tourist of Chinatown, and little else. The postcards are the birds (and flowers) of Alcatraz, because they will fly to their addressees, and because the prison is in fact a nest (a bird’s nest?). So it’s hit and miss regarding the activation of place. Though it may be a curatorial premise, place activation is not the artist’s MO. He’s neither a site-specifist nor a place-maker.  He’s more of a Chinese warlord with a New York attitude who prefers razing historical places, as he did Hitler’s museum in Munich in 2009, converting the former “House of German Art” into a staging
Refraction, 2014, New Industries Building
ground for his personal insurgency against the Chinese Communist Party. As Phil Tinari once pointed out, Ai’s personal style is to push back against any limitation imposed upon his artistic or civil liberties. It is in this sense that he is an activist. If there were nothing to push back against, he would be invisible. If he can’t travel, his work must. Haines gave him Alcatraz to push against, but because Alcatraz is already a place – a place he hadn’t seen – he couldn’t use the aesthetic force necessary to fill it with the meanings of other places, with other prisons and the lives they cage. The ironic result is too much user friendliness. 
Ai has been compared in the west with Marcel Duchamp (for his ready-mades), Andy Warhol (for his ubiquity), and Joseph Beuys (for his social sculpture). Since he can’t leave China, he has been lately criticized for copying (or appropriating, Duchamp-style) the literalist geometry of American Minimalism, with its unitary and modular forms that purged the object of pictorial metaphor in the late 1960s while spilling into the space of the

Refraction (detail), 2014

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.

Stay Tuned, 2014, installation detail, A Block 


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. 

Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio, June 2014

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. 

 “When you constrain freedom,” Ai has written, “freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.” Although it will almost certainly be exhibited elsewhere after its dismantling in April, those who have glimpsed Refraction through broken windows and smudgy Plexiglas know that part of its original meaning came from its physical placement, sealed-off from the public in a dark and lonely place. From one windowsill to the next, the wing’s reflection was refracted anew. Its gestalt was elusive, but its outlines seemed both tender and tragic. It had about it the grace of a dead bird, still warm enough to elicit the faint hope of life. But it will never resuscitate, except maybe in a museum as taxidermy. Perhaps it should stay where it is until the artist is allowed to come free it. Until then, Ai’s elegant but severed wing may be the truest expression we have seen of what it must feel like to have flown so close to the sun.
Ai Weiwei: “@ Large” @ Alcatraz through April 25, 2015. 
About the Author:
A critic since 1977, Jeff Kelley has written for such publications as Artforum, Art in America, sand the Los Angeles Times. From 1993 to 2005 he taught Art Theory and Criticism at the University of California, Berkeley, and edited/authored two books on Allan Kaprow published by the University of California Press. Kelley was a consulting curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum from 1998-2008, and in 2008 hecurated the popular and critically acclaimed Half-Life of a Dream: Chinese Contemporary Art from the Logan Collection for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He lives in Oakland. 
Photos: Jan Stürmann, courtesy FOR-SITE Foundation, unless otherwise identified.

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