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C California Style

L.A.-based WAX Poster debuts with the artist’s Study of Perspective - Tiananmen Square 1995–2003, $50, waxposter.com. PHOTO: Ai Weiwei.
Ai Weiwei. PHOTO: Jan Stuurman.
The first floor of the New Industries Building. PHOTO: Jan Stuurman.
Alcatraz Island. PHOTO: Ben Fash.
This month Taschen releases The Artist Activist; each edition is signed by Ai and wrapped in a silk scarf reproduction of Ai’s work Straight.

Freedom Fighter

by C California Style

Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei sends his provocative work to Alcatraz Island.

It is an exhibition about freedom, its star an internationally acclaimed artist and activist famously imprisoned in his native China. The venue? One of the world’s most notorious prisons, infamous for being impossible to escape.

Little wonder critics are calling this month’s “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” one of the year’s most anticipated art shows, an ambitious and unprecedented collision of art, activism and place.

Ai Weiwei, arguably China’s best-known dissident artist, has created seven new installations inspired by Alcatraz, a former military prison, federal penitentiary, site of historic Native American protest and, now, a popular national park. He has also drawn on his own experience of incarceration at the hands of Chinese authorities: 81 days of secret detention in 2011, a period he described as “a nightmare, an experience no one should share.”

The closest the 57-year-old will get to the site of the new show, however, is his Beijing home-studio, some 6,000 miles away. Ai, whose provocative social, political and cultural commentary on all topics from the Beijing Olympics to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake has long enraged Chinese officials, has been unable to leave the country since his passport was confiscated three years ago. This, he explains in an interview with the exhibit’s curator, Cheryl Haines, caused “tremendous difficulty” when it came to creating the show.

“At the same time, our show is about freedom, ironically, and human struggles for freedom of speech, for a better world, for a more civilized world,” he says. “[This] has always been restricted, also punished, damaged through history. And that’s still happening in many, many nations, so that is a strong reason why we have to do this show.”

“At the same time, our show is about freedom, ironically, and human struggles for freedom of speech, for a better world, for a more civilized world,” he says. “[This] has always been restricted, also punished, damaged through history. And that’s still happening in many, many nations, so that is a strong reason why we have to do this show.”

To produce the new sound, sculpture and multimedia works, Haines, a S.F.-based art advocate and gallery owner (Haines Gallery), made six trips to Beijing to visit Ai. She hand-delivered maps, archival materials, photographs and video footage about the island and the spaces where his work will be installed, as well as DVDs including Birdman of Alcatraz and Escape from Alcatraz. Members of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also aided the collaboration.

The works are being shipped from China or produced in California under the artist’s direction. While it’s not the island’s first cultural attraction, the exhibition marks the first time Alcatraz has hosted the work of a contemporary art star and comes as the artist works at what many see as the height of his creative powers. “A modern master in his moment” is how The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones described Ai’s installations for the 2013 Venice Biennale, comparing him to “Beuys in the ’70s or Duchamp in 1917.” ArtReview magazine has declared Ai the world’s most powerful artist.

The show also comes on the heels of two major international solo exhibitions, the touring “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” at the Brooklyn Museum and “Evidence” at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau.

“@Large” is both a reference to the history of the 22-acre rock, which housed convicts including Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and a nod to Ai’s restricted existence in China, where he is constantly monitored and followed.

Authorities in China continue to censor the artist, who was badly beaten by police in 2009, banning his name from the domestic Internet. His popular blog was closed and earlier this year his name was removed from two exhibitions in China. Nevertheless, he continues to engage with an international audience of millions via the Internet and his global exhibitions.

The installations will be showcased in four sites on the island, three of which are usually off-limits to visitors: the two-story New Industries Building, where “privileged” inmates were allowed to work; the main and psychiatric cells of the Alcatraz Hospital; and the A Block cells, the only remaining section of the military prison built in the early 20th century.

Exactly what the exhibition entails remains a secret, but the artist is known for bold, powerful and provocative work that ranges from sculpture and installation to photography and film, and addresses such issues as lack of human rights and government corruption.

For a 2010 exhibition at the Tate Modern, London, Ai filled its vast Turbine Hall with more than 100 million handcrafted replica sunflower seeds. In 2009, he covered the exterior of Munich’s Haus der Kunst with a breathtaking collage of 9,000 children’s backpacks, a work entitled Remembering, inspired by the victims of Sichuan. For a prestigious international art show in 2007, he flew in 1,001 Chinese citizens to the small German town of Kassel, a part-installation, part-performance art project called “Fairytale.”

Elsewhere he exhibits a deceptive levity, such as his “Study of Perspective” series of photographs in which he raises a middle finger in front of landmarks including the Eiffel Tower, White House and Tiananmen Square, or his 2013 heavy metal single Dumbass, a work of “self-therapy” to deal with his detention.

Haines says that although the new works will address themes familiar to Ai, such as the right to free expression, the social implications of incarceration, and the irrepressible nature of creativity, the show’s site-specific works will give visitors “a very different experience than any of Ai Weiwei’s other exhibitions.”

The rich history of the show’s location, which draws more than 1.3 million visitors a year, will also contribute to its power, Haines says. “It’s rare to experience new work in a space that is so directly linked in concept,” she explains.

Haines, 58, is founder of the nonprofit FOR-SITE Foundation, which aims to bring artwork about place to the public in unconventional locations. She has previously staged projects in the Presidio and Golden Gate National Parks featuring such artists as Andy Goldsworthy and Ai himself, who contributed eight ceramic owl birdhouses for a 2010 show.

“@Large” is the foundation’s largest and most complex endeavor to date and a partnership with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

Haines, who first met Ai in Beijing before his detention and quickly struck up a “lively conversation that continues to this day,” initially suggested the Alcatraz idea while visiting him shortly after his release.

“We spoke about his interest in sharing his experiences with a broader audience,” says Haines, who in a 2011 interview with The Bay Citizen likened Ai to a “cross between the Dalai Lama and Bill Murray.”

The artist’s desire for a global conversation about freedom, creativity and social justice chimed with FOR-SITE’s belief that art can stimulate a dialogue about such issues, she says.

She raised $3 million and pulled the entire show together in just nine months, a complex challenge “when the artist is prohibited from visiting the site,” she adds.

Ai, meanwhile, is confident his ideas will come across, though never at the expense of his art. “Being an artist, you have to have a skill to make people understand your message,” Ai says. “At the same time, you want ordinary people who understand the show (to know) it’s art, it’s not just a political statement but an experience through feelings, through shapes, colors, structure. (It’s) important to carry these essential ideas about freedom so that everybody, even children, can appreciate it. We have to make it beautiful, we have to make it fly.” Sept. 27, 2014-April 26, 2015; for-site.org

By Catherine Elsworth.