Ai Weiwei’s compelling new art installations on Alcatraz

I’ve been to San Francisco several times but have never had the urge to brave the crowds let alone follow the advice of friends to book the tickets months in advance to visit Alcatraz. The famous US Penitentiary has many stories with the walls of the cells but what drew me finally, is the latest Ai Weiwei exhibition that just opened in September and runs until April 26, 2015.

Internationally known for his works that blur the lines between art and activism, this exhibition is more powerful than I could have ever imagined. Ai Weiwei’s new works were created specifically for Alcatraz and its legacy. From what we already know as a jail that held some of the most notorious criminals to the site of Native American protest to what is now protected as a national park, Ai Weiwei brings a new perspective to those who are familiar with his work and those who are not. The works on exhibit asks us to think about freedom of expression and human rights.

I had booked my ticket three weeks prior to my visit and planned on an early start. Good thing! As the crowds swelled closer to the lunch hour. I had envisioned staying 2 hours viewing the works but easily could have spent at least another 2 hours to take in the history and audio tour of Alcatraz itself. But I’m a lingering type when it comes to art exhibitions and I had only allocated myself three hours in total for this visit that included the ferry ride.

The exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz has seven installations in two locations: The main building and the New Industries Building. Each exhibit was just as impactful as the next. But here I will tell you about just a few that really hit me hard.

@Large Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

I headed for the New Building first as I figured the crowds would get there last. Upon entering, I was greeted by a vast expanding and colourful kite dragon head and the full body made of individula kites streamed across the ceiling swerving in all directions. The exhibit titled “With Wind” is a stunning entry point that trails in motion spotted with quotes by imprisoned or exiled including Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden and others. The most powerful quote by  had me stop and feel such sorrow. “…my words are well intended and innocent,” Le Quoc Quan. According to information provided, Ai Weiwei mentioned that, for him, the dragon represents not imperial authority, but personal freedom. It’s delicate ,yet powerful nature, is overwhelming beautiful.

@Large Ai Weiwei on AlcatrazLocated in the hospital ward in the main building were several exhibits — walking through the corridors felt alarmingly haunting to me. Emotions run deep in such confines of seeing operating tables that have once been in active rotation. As I made my way down the hallways and glancing at various rusted old porcelain sinks, toilets and bathtubs that were set back, I began noticing floral structures almost blooming from within. When I reached the final corner cell, it was only then could I get a closer look at the incredible detail of the exhibit “Blossom.” I was told that the hundreds of intricate flowers – all in white porcelain – were meant not only to be seen as traditional Chinese art, but also symbolic of offering comfort to the imprisoned – likened to how we would send flowers to someone in the hospital. According to the staff, this is also Ai Weiwei’s ironic reference to China’s famous Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956.

@Large Ai Weiwei on AlcatrazAn interactive component of Ai Weiwei’s exhibit at Alcatraz invites visitors to write a personal note on a postcard to a “prisoner of conscience.” Postcards with peaceful images of nature and animals, are labelled with names and addresses of prisoners around the world. The cards are free and available at this installation and messages will be mailed out. In this exhibit, Ai Weiwei mentioned about the deep feeling of isolation that affects those who are imprisoned and the fear of being forgotten in the outside world. In the spirit of free expression, visitors can write whatever they wish.

There are several other incredible exhibits and so much to see. If you’re planning a visit to San Francisco in the next few months take the time and see this exhibit and also take the time to learn more about the history of Alcatraz.

@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz is free with general admission to the island. Admission to Alcatraz $30 for adults. Visit  Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz for more details.

This exhibition is presented by the FOR-SITE Foundation in partnership with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.






Sonya is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of She is also a well-established contributing lifestyle writer to other sites and magazines sharing her passion for arts & culture, fashion, beauty, travel and food. Sonya is based in Toronto, Canada. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @theculturepearl

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