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Beginning September 27, visitors to Alcatraz Island, located in the San Francisco Bay, will be able to see much more than the remains of a federal penitentiary that existed from 1934 to 1963. In addition to the former prison cells, visitors will be able to see the work of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who has created seven site-specific installations in different parts of the island for the exhibition "@Large"—from the dining hall to Cell Block A and psychiatric observation cells.
Ai Weiwei, who has had his passport taken away by the Chinese government and could not travel to install the pieces himself, has used the opportunity of putting art on Alcatraz to examine human rights and freedom of expression. Having been unfairly jailed, censored, and silenced multiple times, Ai Weiwei broadens the conversation outside of his own experiences to articulate the plight of non-violent political detainees—175 of them, to be exact.
From Edward Snowden to Nelson Mandela, portraits of "prisoners of consciousness," as Weiwei calls them, appear in connected LEGO collages on the floor of the New Industries building (Trace), adjacent to a room with a giant, weaving Chinese "dragon kite" (With Wind). In addition to a sculptural, wing-like installation titled Refraction, which can only be viewed from a "gun gallery" corridor, there are sound installations in the A Block (Stay Tuned) and Hospital (Illumination and Blossom) areas of Alcatraz, porcelain sculptures in old sinks and toilets (Bloom), and finally, in the dining hall, an interactive portion titled Yours Truly, where visitors can write letters to some of the jailed prisoners depicted in Trace.
"@Large" effectively puts viewers in the position of a prisoner in a cell, a prison guard, a mentally ill prisoner, and a prisoner at work. By showing all the different angles of prison life, including where one would use the bathroom or eat, the installations powerfully comment on the state of human rights and the social implications of incarceration.