Ai Weiwei Transform Alcatraz Into a Memorial for Political Prisoners

Prison Cell
Ai Weiwei fills Alcatraz with messages from political prisoners. (Image: Colin Fredericson)

I don’t think I would otherwise be interested in visiting Alcatraz. It would seem an imposing place, filled with the spirits of dead criminals. I’d have to take a boat there. What if they decided not to take us back? But during a family gathering outside of San Francisco, I remembered hearing Ai Weiwei had new art on display there.

Ai Weiwei’s newest exhibit breaks down the walls at Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Island used to hold the most dangerous criminals in the United States. It housed people like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. Scary dudes. That didn’t interest me so much as how it’s a national park with a thriving natural environment. I thought to at least take in some natural scenery and see some cool birds. Once on the island, I learned of incredible prison escapes. And learned the island was the site of Native American protests, and even a Civil War fortress.

Alcatraz Island

The view as my boat touched down at Alcatraz Island. (Image: Colin Fredericson)

Upon encountering Ai Weiwei’s art in various corners of the complex, what kept coming to mind was “prisoner of conscience” and “political prisoner.” His exhibit was a celebration of and a memorial to those unjustly imprisoned for political reasons. Ai, and his father before him, was imprisoned in China as a political prisoner artist. Ai as a visual artist, and his father as a poet.

Bathroom art

Porcelain flowers fill the dirtiest of places. (Image: Colin Fredericson)

Ai is still a political prisoner, unable to leave China. But outside of China his art is travelling. And his views are travelling through his art. He managed to put together this exhibit while unable to visit the spaces that would actually house it. He can’t travel as he wishes. The Chinese government restricts and monitors his movement.


The most striking piece of the exhibit was this dragon filling the room. (Image: Colin Fredericson)

The main parts of the exhibit are housed in areas the public has previously never seen. Besides prison cells, his art fills the bathrooms, toilets, bathtubs, showers, and laundry rooms. The art was shipped from China and reconstructed here. Ai had to construct the installation with an eye for every dimension and measurement. It also needed to be done in a way that would not get it confiscated during shipment. Much had to be calculated as the art left Ai in Beijing on it’s way to San Francisco.

Political prisoners from Legos

Ai Weiwei used Legos to construct portraits of an enormously varied collection of political prisoners. (Image: Colin Fredericson)

Ai Weiwei put political prisoners from every region of the world in this exhibit. And he did not neglect political prisoners from China. One conspicuous Chinese face is human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, one of the many faces constructed from legos in the largest part of the exhibit. Lawyer Gao got to taste the wrath of the Chinese Communist Party for his work defending the rights of Chinese citizens who practice Falun Dafa. Falun Dafa practitioners have been persecuted and unlawfully imprisoned in China since 1999. For defending them relentlessly in court, Gao was also subject to persecution and unlawful imprisonment.

Gao Zhisheng

Lego portrait of Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng. (Image: Colin Fredericson)

It’s a sad day when people go to jail unjustly. But here we have the most notorious former prison complex, now a park and tourist attraction, allowing a dissident artist to pay homage to political prisoners everywhere.

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