“Once you’ve tasted freedom, it stays in your heart and no one can take it. Then, you can be more powerful than a whole country.”
Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, lives on an island in a prison. That island is China and he is a prisoner, confined to his home, a political prisoner who uses art to question freedom, and what freedom means to today’s “prisoners of conscience.” At first glance, my visit to San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island and Ai Weiwei’s exhibit left me underwhelmed and wanting for more. As I walked through the narrow corridors and crumbling cement rooms, the simplicity of this three room art installation sneaked inside me and needled away at my conscience.
My own ignorance was isolating and imprisoning me. I recognized only a handful of the more than 175 contemporary Amnesty International “prisoners of conscience” displayed in pixilated Lego portraits on the floor of the vacuous Industries Building on Alcatraz Island. The Industries Building is where prison inmates in the 1930’s-50s labored 8 hours a day, including the likes of the Hollywood-embraced Al Capone and The Bird Man of Alcatraz. However, during WWI, Alcatraz was also used to imprison vocal conscientious objectors to military service.
The complete Ai Weiwei installation brings to the forefront a renewed reminder of unwarranted imprisonments for a crime of conscious objection to an authoritarian government. Most of us are familiar with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition politician and chairperson of the National League for Democracy in Burma, who was under house arrest for nearly 15 years. There are hundreds of lesser known activists, like Abolfazl Abedini, a journalist and human rights activist, exiled to a 12 year prison sentence for propaganda condemning the violation of human rights in Iran.
Ai Weiwei spent much of his own childhood in exile, sentenced to a labor camp in the late 1950s with his father who was a notable poet and eventual target of Mao Zedong’s purge of intellectuals. “I think the hardest thing for my father . . . was that he thought no one remembered him,” and so it is that Ai Weiwei’s ambition with this exhibit is to ensure that today’s “prisoners of conscience” around the world aren’t forgotten. To live on an island, by imprisonment or because of ignorance, condemns one to a loss of freedom.
The installation takes on another layer of depth once one learns that Ai Weiwei designed these pieces and supervised their final installation remotely from his home in China. The third and final sculpture, a single large bird’s wing, entitled REFRACTION weighs in at 5 tons, made from crudely fashioned, heavy metal reflective solar panels used in Tibet to purify drinking water – a direct reference to the region’s continued struggles under Chinese rule. Visitors can only view this massive sculpture through plexiglass-covered cracked-glass windows of a walkway once used by guards to keep watch over the prisoners, making the impact of this piece more visceral than visual. For a close-up of the sculpture from the prisoner’s point of view, visit this site here.