Every now and then a person or an event comes along that makes us appreciate just how profound and provocative the combination of art and public space can be. Usually it’s an artist that shapes that vision. I have had a few peak experiences in my life to support this, like when I saw Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington DC and Donald Judd’s works in Marfa for the first time. Both of these installations have made permanent impressions on me.
Just a few weeks ago I had a similarly profound experience on Alcatraz. Artist Ai Weiwei was recruited by Cheryl Haines (SF Art Gallery owner and FOR-SITE founder) to use Alcatraz as a location for his artistic and political expression.
Ai Weiwei is well known internationally for his art installations. He has used the bicycle as a metaphor in these installations in Tokyo, Taiwan and Italy. This amazing exhibit, currently on display at the Palazzo Franchetti in Venice is a great example.
Much has been written about this phenomenal show in the media, including the thorough article from The New York Times “Art Man of Alcatraz: Ai Weiwei Takes His Work to a Prison” that includes a terrific slide show as well.
There are seven installations total on Alcatraz. They range in scope and depth from porcelain flowers in toilets (shown left) to sound systems in jail cells. All must be experienced first-hand to be appreciated. They are not easily summarized.
The Lego installation has received a lot of media attention. It features over 176 Lego portraits of many “prisoners of conscience” that have been jailed, tortured or like Ai Weiwei, prevented from escape (like the inmates of Alcatraz). It includes people like Edward Snowden and many other less well know “dissidents.”
I found this installation particularly powerful upon learning that Ai Weiwei intended this to not only be impactful to adults, but children as well. Many children visit as tourists with their parents. Ai Weiwei hopes to get inside their little minds. How many artists take on the challenge of provoking thought in adults and kids alike?
Alcatraz is a legendary prison with an inherent comment on public space that’s compelling to visit on its own. But these installations take the experience of being there up to another level. It’s worth coming to SF just to see this show. Kudos to Ai Weiwei and Ms. Haines for pulling off the San Francisco event of the year, in my humble opinion, that rivals the Golden Gate Bridge in drama.
Ai Weiwei’s installations are currently on display on Alcatraz through April 26. Tickets aren’t easy to come by, but you can book yours here.