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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Alcatraz and the Artist Ai Weiwei At Large

We've lived in EssEff for over 30 years, most of that on Russian Hill with a view of the bay. We see Alcatraz every day, and yet have never set foot on the island. Just one of those things that we've been meaning to get around to but never quite do.  Until today.

Alcatraz from Russian Hill
Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, in collaboration with the For-Site Foundation, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the National Park Service has erected a large scale art installation on the historic site which will be on display until April, 2015.

Ai Weiwei self-portrait as a silk kite in "With Wind" installation
"Ai’s sculpture, sound, and mixed-media installations occupy four locations in the former prison: the New Industries Building; a group of cells in A Block; the Hospital; and the Dining Hall. With the exception of the Dining Hall, these areas are usually restricted to the public, but all are open throughout the run of the exhibition. @Large turns Alcatraz into a space for dialogue about how we define liberty and justice, individual rights and personal responsibility. In artworks that balance political impact with aesthetic grace, the exhibition directly and imaginatively addresses the situation of people around the world who have been deprived of their freedom for speaking out about their beliefs — people like Ai himself.  A vocal critic of his nation’s government, Ai was secretly detained by Chinese authorities for 81 days in 2011, and is still not permitted to travel outside China. As a result, the artist was unable to visit Alcatraz during the planning of this exhibition; he has developed the artwork at his studio in Beijing, with the help of the FOR-SITE Foundation."
This was the impetus we needed. Sigrid arranged for tickets, we Uber'd down to Pier 33 and took the ferry to the island.

At Pier 33

Russian Hill from the ferry.
Russian Hill from Alcatraz
The mash-up of tourist attraction / art installation / political statement invokes a bit of cognitive dissonance. The impossible job of resolving these disparate elements falls squarely on the shoulders of the person guiding, exhorting and lecturing the group tour.

Gabby was our guide for the tour and she admirably addressed the challenging task, getting through the canned spiel, answering questions, and herding the group to and through the installations. Both during and after the tour we had adequate time to enjoy and explore the installations before catching the last ferry back.

The work is necessarily large and accessible, the political message is explicit and literal, the aesthetics bright and appealing. Anything small, discrete and subtle would simply be overwhelmed and lost in the setting of the hulking prison and it's depressing history.

Photography was permitted throughout, so without further ado, some images from Sigrid's Canon and my Samsung S5, focused on three of the more visually arresting galleries

Like any tourist destination or major museum art exhibit, at the conclusion of the tour we found a variety of books written by and about the exhibit as well as a wide selection of branded swag and souvenir tchotchkes.

As noted, there is nothing surprising about this. Still - given the ambition and artistic message of the installation is focused on the oppression of jailed, tortured and murdered artists and dissidents - some of this crap strikes a jarring note. I can't help but think this trivializes the artist's intent.  An Ai Weiwei mousepad? An AiWewei quote "Once again, the facts have been erased." printed on a giant rubber eraser? Really?

The exhibit notes explain that Ai Weiwei's passport has been confiscated by the Chinese government, he has not been permitted to travel out of China, and he has consequently not directly seen his exhibition or this display. He gets the benefit of the doubt.  But I do think someone on the commercial end of the exhibition has completely jumped the shark.  But let's wrap on a more positive note.

After 30 years, we finally checked the Alcatraz tour off of EssEff staycation list.

Moreover, we both thoroughly enjoyed the Ai Weiwei installation - definitely recommended.

Finally, I was really tickled to see this:

Although you've already seen three images of the dragon kite head in this post, you probably did not notice that the eye of the dragon has a twitter logo for a pupil. And the eyebrow is the artist's twitter handle.  Ai Weiwei is a big fan of social networks.

So I'll be tweeting this review to him as soon as I post it.

UPDATE: For-site takes note
 Editors Note: Am now frantically proofing the post for typo.

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