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Ai Weiwei: @Large

The Chinese artist's expansive exhibit on Alcatraz explores political dissidence and pays homage to activists around the world

by Phuong-Cac Nguyen
on 29 September 2014

The throng arrived early and in large groups for the first departure of the day to Alcatraz Island from Pier 33 in San Francisco. After ferry-goers disembarked boat, it was clear who was there to see political dissident Ai Weiwei’s new show, @Large, and those who were tourists—excited Weiwei fans who had already scoped out the exhibit map made a beeline directly to the far end of the island, to the New Industries Building, where three of the seven new works were housed. What awaited was a site-specific show that is nothing short of engrossing, explicitly bridging Weiwei’s personal experience as an artist with those around the world who have been exiled or imprisoned for their beliefs.

Because Weiwei is prohibited by Chinese officials from traveling abroad, For-Site Foundation’s founding executive director and curator Cheryl Haines worked with Weiwei from his home base, bringing him the layout of the former prison site and its buildings.

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While each of the works successfully evokes compassion from viewers, the sound installation “Stay Tuned” is particularly effective in putting them in dissidents’ shoes. Individual cells broadcast music and poetry from one of 17 people from Russia's Pussy Riot to Persian poet Ahmad Shamlu whose expressions resulted in consequences to their freedom; inside each cell is a stool where visitors can sit and listen to the recordings emanating from speakers set in the ventilation grills.


The most detailed of the works is "Trace," comprised of 175 portraits of dissidents rendered in colorful LEGO blocks. Around the perimeter of the room are binders with information on each of the dissidents. Later, in "Yours Truly," visitors are given the opportunity to write a message to one of them, on a pre-addressed postcard designed by artists in Weiwei's studios that will be mailed on their behalf by the For-Site Foundation.


A more physically massive work is "Refraction," a piece that resembles a bird's wing and is viewed from the gun gallery above. Unfortunately, the work loses its intended impact due to the highly reflective glass used in the gun gallery, which makes it hard for exhibit-goers to see the piece. When we were there, we saw several exhibit goers give up in frustration; perhaps early morning, when the sun hits that side of the building is not the ideal time to see the piece.


"@Large" is on display until 26 April 2015. Ferry tickets can be booked up to three months in advance from Alcatraz Cruises. For those who cannot make it to San Francisco, the exhibit's site includes sound clips and many photos — it's fitting, considering that it likely will be the only way for Ai Weiwei to experience his own show.

Images courtesy of Phuong-Cac Nguyen for Cool Hunting, see more in the slideshow.

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