SAN FRANCISCO – Chinese contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei, has revealed plans for an exhibition next September at Alcatraz, the infamous prison located on an island in San Francisco Bay. A long time dissident of the Chinese government and their recent detainee, Ai’s choice of locale expects to foster discussion about prisons and civil liberties both within the United States and abroad.
San Francisco gallery owner, Cheryl Haines, first brought Alcatraz to the attention of Ai in 2011, four months after his release from a secret Chinese detention center outside Beijing. Although the artist has never seen the venue personally and may not see it before the exhibition’s opening (the government confiscated his passport), he is interested in how Alcatraz will allow him to explore themes pertaining to freedom and imprisonment.
“The idea of loss of freedom as a punishment raises philosophical questions,” said Ai during a phone interview with the New York Times. His most recent three-piece solo exhibit at the Venice Biennal in Italy depicted the claustrophobic conditions of his 81-day confinement — including constant double guard supervision, even while showering.
Although Ai was detained for tax evasion charges, his supporters argue that he was arrested for investigating the collapsed schools from 2008’s Sichuan earthquake, which resulted in the death of thousands of children.
Ai endured these conditions during his imprisonment for tax evasion charges after investigating the paltry construction of schools while in school.
“I have too many friends today who are still in jail,” he continued. “The fact that people who are fighting for freedom have lost their freedom being incarcerated is more than ironic.”
As Ai’s collaborator, Haines described potential themes for the exhibit. “I think it’s a really rich site that allows him to address the most basic human rights, like freedom of expression and its importance in building a culture,” she said. “We’re also hoping to address parallels between forms of imprisonment and governments that use restrictions in communications to control people.”
Ai hopes to connect with a broader audience with this exhibit — and due to the island’s status as a high tourist destination with 1.5 million visitors annually combined with its rich history — he will most likely get his wish.
Alcatraz first became a military outpost in the 1850s, although it didn’t become a federal prison until 1933. Gangster, Al Capone, and murderer, Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud, were some of its more notorious residents, although many of the prisoners were considered particularly violent offenders. The 9ft long by 5ft wide and 7ft high cells guaranteed cramped conditions for the prisoners while the strict preservation of silence and ban of radios as well as newspapers added to the oppressive atmosphere.
Of 14 escape attempts involving 36 men over a 29 year period, six were shot dead, 23 recaptured, two drowned and the remaining five assumed drowned at sea or in the bay.
Although Ai’s exhibit will be the first of its kind shown on the island, Alcatraz is no stranger to protest. After its closure in 1963 due to budget constraints, Native Americans occupied the site in 1969 until they were forced out by federal marshals in 1971. The occupation resulted in increased funding for Native American healthcare, student scholarships, recognition of tribal self-rule and spurred future protest movements against civil rights abuses.
As the 1969 occupation brought national interest to the rights and oppression of Native Americans, so too may Ai’s exhibit highlight his concern for global human rights and freedom of expression.
– Emily Bajet