Dissident artist Ai Weiwei brings exhibit to Alcatraz

Wed Sep 24, 2014 5:58pm EDT
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By Deepa Seetharaman

ALCATRAZ (Reuters) - One of China's most famous dissidents has appropriated the United States' most famous former prison as a way to highlight the plight of activists held in detention.

Starting Sept. 27, the former island penitentiary turned U.S. national park in San Francisco Bay will offer visitors the opportunity to view seven installations custom-designed by the artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

Ai, for decades a critic of the Chinese government's record on free speech and human rights, created the pieces without ever having visited Alcatraz. He has been banned from leaving China since his 81-day detention there in 2011.

The exhibit, called @Large, reflects the sting and isolation of detention with works like the massive "Trace," featuring portraits of 176 activists and political prisoners built entirely from 1.2 million Lego bricks.

"When people are detained for their beliefs, you get a sense of isolation, that you're being forgotten by the world," said Cheryl Haines, founding executive director of the FOR-SITE Foundation, organizer of the exhibit.

"It's his eloquent way of saying 'We have not forgotten about you,'" Haines said of Ai's "Trace."

Another work, "Stay Tuned," spans 12 single-block cells, each outfitted with a stool and speakers that play a different recording from artists who have been detained, including the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot.

After Haines approached Ai about creating an exhibit at Alcatraz, the entire project came together in about 9 months, much faster than the typical two- to three-year time frame.   Continued...

Dissedent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei reacts during a group interview at his studio in Beijing May 22, 2013. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic