California. 17th November, Al Weiwei at Alcatraz

A chance exhibition by Ai Weiwei the dissident Chinese artist lead to us being able to visit the sad hospital wing of Alcatraz, which I understand is not normally open to the public.
Ai Weiwei had a blog which criticised the Chinese government for trying to cover up the cause of the collapse of school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 when nearly 5,500 students perished. Not only did the government suppress the reason for this tragedy, shoddy building methods, it would not disclose the names of the children who had died. Ai Weiwei investigated and published the names so that they would not be forgotten. The blog was closed down by the government and Ai Weiwei was placed under house arrest and in 2011 imprisoned for alleged tax offences.
Ai Weiwei had spent the 1980's in the US while studying and working in New York, returning to China when his father became ill. He had participated in courses at the Parson's School of Design and the Art Student's League of New York. This followed his attendance at the National Film Academy in Beijing.
On his return and preceding his political activity he was artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. At the same time he designed a studio for himself in Shanghai which was demolished by local government who claimed he did not have the necessary planning permission.

Ai spent 3 months in prison and is now no longer under house arrest but he is still not allowed to leave the country. The work, '@Large',  exhibited at Alcatraz contains work that was either sent over from his studio in Beijing or created to his designs in San Francisco.
In the hospital the two psychiatric rooms were filled with the sound of Hopi and Buddist chanting and some of the baths and toilets were brimmed with white porcelain flowers. This part of the exhibition was 'Illumination' and 'Blossom'.
The hospital was used by all the inmates for dental work and minor surgery, Al Capone was a long term resident with terminal syphilis and Robert Stroud, the 'Birdman of Alcatraz' spent 11 of his 17 years in Alcatraz in a hospital cell before being transferred to Springfield Federal Penitentiary where he died.
With it's peeling paintwork and air of desolation the hospital was a sombre place to visit. The top picture is one of the psychiatric rooms which were bare and tiled.

















Coming out of the Cellhouse we walked outside and over to the New Industries Building where inmates were privileged to work, either in the laundry or, making such things as army uniforms, mats and gloves. 
The first installation was called 'With Wind' that had been made by a number of artisans in Beijing and placed ironically within the confines of a barred room. The kites bore the names of activists who had been imprisoned or excited.






We then walked through to a very large space where the floor was covered with thousands of Lego bricks depicting the portraits of 176 people from around the world who have been imprisoned or exiled for their beliefs. Some of the exhibition had come from China and the rest had been put together in San Francisco with the help of 80 volunteers.





All around the one side of this building is a corridor or gun gallery where armed officers would monitor the prisoners while they worked. This narrow chamber is normally shut but had been opened so that we could see the kites and Lego blocks through the broken and marked panes and also see a work called 'Refraction'. Again there was a marked contrast between the idea of flight and the constrains of a barred room.







I used and thank a number of sources for the information on Alcatraz, including Atlas Obscura http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/alcatraz-off-limits-hospital-opens-its-decrepit-wards ,  For-Site Foundation  http://www.for-site.org/project/ai-weiwei-alcatraz/ ,   the National Park Service http://www.nps.gov/alca/index.htm and good old Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcatraz_Federal_Penitentiary






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