A prison is not the first place one would expect to find an art exhibit, nevertheless one exploring themes of freedom and human rights. But this is exactly where Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has chosen to display his work- at the United States’ notorious island prison, Alcatraz, found off the coast of San Francisco in California. The exhibit, titled @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, includes seven installations of sculpture, sound, and mixed-media works inspired by Alcatraz Island.

Alcatraz was made infamous during its time as a federal penitentiary, but the island has also been utilized as a military fortress and host to a Native American occupation and protest movement in the early 1970s. This rich and layered history made Alcatraz an intriguing spot for an exhibition raising questions regarding freedom of expression, by an artist whose freedoms have been repeatedly tested by his native Chinese government.

As a politically outspoken artist, Ai Weiwei has been arrested, detained, and put under continuing surveillance in his home city of Beijing. Although he has since been released after a 2011 arrest, Weiwei is still prohibited from traveling outside of China. Yet these restrictions have not stopped him from expressing criticism through his art. His installments offer a new perspective on a place known for both detainment and protest- two themes that resonate in Weiwei’s life and work. In one section of the exhibit, visitors peer down at his work through the broken windows of a gun gallery, where guards once stood watch, weapons trained on the prisoners below.

While this arrangement adds a powerful dynamic to the exhibit, the vision for the piece required access to a section of Alcatraz that is normally off limits, for both the safety of visitors and the preservation of the historic site. A Portland cleantech start-up was enlisted to engineer a custom solution. Indow Windows rose to the occasion, creating custom window inserts that will both protect visitors from broken glass and the historic building from further damage.

The exhibit is on display at Alcatraz Island through April 26, 2015. For more information, visit the For-Site Foundation online at: http://www.for-site.org/.


Colleen Maney

Colleen is a recent graduate of Northeastern University in Boston. With an academic background in International Affairs and Political Science, Colleen’s research revolves around post-conflict reconciliation...

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