Ai Weiwei [@Large] on Alcatraz Island

Posted on by Lauren Moss

Last week, we took a few days to head up to the Bay Area to visit @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, an innovative and socially relevant large-scale public art project at one of California's most well-known historic sites.

with wind   // new industries building

with wind // new industries building

Ai’s sculpture, sound, and mixed-media installations occupy four locations: the New Industries Building; a group of cells in A Block; the Hospital; and the Dining Hall. With the exception of the Dining Hall, these areas are usually restricted to the public, but all are open throughout the exhibition. @Large turns Alcatraz into a space for dialogue about how we define liberty and justice, individual rights and personal responsibility. In artworks that balance political impact with aesthetic grace, the exhibition directly and imaginatively addresses the situation of people around the world who have been deprived of their freedom for speaking out about their beliefs — people like Ai himself.  [for-site foundation]

with wind   / traditional paper kites

with wind / traditional paper kites

The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.
— Ai Weiwei
with wind   // chinese dragon

with wind // chinese dragon

Restricted from travel outside of China, the artist and activist had to conceive, design and coordinate the complex works from his studio across the globe. The constraints of the process are a reflection of a central issue addressed by the installations, one that addresses freedom of expression and basic human rights.

trace   // new industries building

trace // new industries building

Throughout the works the concept of tension- between freedom and oppression, access and restriction- is expressed in various sensory ways to create a relationship between the viewer, the environment, and the subject.

illumination   // psychiatric observation room

illumination // psychiatric observation room

blossom  //  hospital chambers

blossom // hospital chambers

blossom   // ceramic flowers

blossom // ceramic flowers

Whether that subject is symbolic, as the traditional handmade kites in With Wind, or representative of specific individuals, as in the oversized LEGO portraits at Trace, the experience adds impact to the commentary on the meaning of freedom and representation.

In this sense, the creative intervention at Alcatraz Island and the dialogue it warrants truly reflects Ai Weiwei's belief in 'the purpose of art, which is the fight for freedom.'

stay tuned   // cell block a

stay tuned // cell block a

refraction   / new industries building

refraction / new industries building

with wind   / kites

with wind / kites

Find more information, images and details regarding the project, process and philosophy, visit

trace   // view from gun gallery

trace // view from gun gallery