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The Ai Weiwei Exhibit on Alcatraz Is Incongruous, Unfocused, a Little Slapdash—and Unmissable

Early impressions of the art show of the season.

 

Saturday is the public opening of @Large Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, a monumental exhibition of new, site-specific art by the famed Chinese dissident. Earlier this week, editor-in-chief Jon Steinberg and senior editor Ellen Cushing stowed away on a prison-bound ferry (okay, it was an official press preview), and took an early glimpse at the seven works in the exhibit. Below is a gchat about their impressions:

JS: First of all, how'd you like your first trip to Alcatraz? I can't believe you never went throughout your entire radical social justice-infused upbringing in Berkeley. Don’t you guys do a whole semester on the 1969 Indian takeover?

EC: I can't believe it either! And if I did learn about the Alcatraz Indians, I guess I didn’t retain anything. It was so weird to see their graffiti still scrawled on the water tower over the island. But anyway, I was obviously impressed by Alcatraz—I thought it'd be some weird tourist fantasia but was pleasantly surprised to see how little restoration had been done.

JS: That is part of its appeal. Hstoric preservationists like to refer to it as "arrested decay." The term certainly applies to a crumbling former penitentiary on a bird-poop covered rock in the middle of a shark-infested bay. (Actually, we didn’t see any sharks on our ferry out there—but we did see a pod of dolphins and a harbor seal!) There are metaphors everywhere in this place. It makes it very easy to see why it appealed to the organizers of the @Large exhibition and to the artist himself. Ai Weiwei is a man who likes his metaphors.

EC: Oh yeah he does!

JS: So, onto the art: What did you think?

EC: I liked it, in general! Some pieces more than others, certainly—there are seven total installations, and they're quite various—but my overall impression was really positive. You?

JS: Well, I always love a spectacle, and @Large certainly is that. Alcatraz makes such a atmospheric (read: haunting, creepy) canvas that you could throw just about any art into its midst, and you'll provoke a reaction. But Ai seems perfectly suited for this setting. He doesn't do small gestures, and many of the pieces in this show display an ambition that is famously outsized. He's a global artist with a significant ego, and the art is clearly working to exceed expectations. I'm thinking mostly of Trace, which fills a large, grey hall, formerly used for prison workshops with over 2 million Legos laid into pixallated portraits of 170 political dissidents and prisoners. I didn't love the plasticity of the materials—what do Legos have to say about imprisonment or injustice or freedom, exactly?—but you can't scoff at the scale of the work. It's impressive.

EC: Trace was by far my least favorite piece in the show, for many of the reasons you just spelled out. It was impressive, to be clear—as one of the docents told us, the piece involved $450,000 worth of Legos—but I wasn't quite as affected by it as I would have liked, or as I'm sure the artist would have wanted. I would imagine Ai's intention was to telegraph the sheer number of political prisoners throughout the world, but to me the medium felt gimmicky, even a little hollow. What were your favorite pieces?

JS: I wouldn't say that I dislike the Lego piece, but I agree that there was an element of showboating that was hard to get around. It was clearly a huge effort—that same docent told us that the volunteer assemblers had to make emergency trips to Stonestown after they ran out of orange Legos—but the thinking behind the piece seemed slapdash. What does a Lego portrait of Edward Snowden really say about the emotional or psychological wounds afflicted on political prisoners? Got me! Much, much more effecting for me, was the sound installations Illumination and Stay Tuned, which transmit chanting, songs, and speeches by famous political dissidents and activists into actual prison cells. I was truly moved by some of the juxtapositions: listening to mournful Tibetan monks chanting from within the bowels of a too-dark, too-claustrophobic psychiatric observation room—my god, how can you not be jolted a bit by that?

EC: You can't. Especially with Illumination, which was staged in the former psych ward. It's hard to overstate how thought-provoking that installation was, between the utter decrepitude of the cells and the dirge-like sound of the chanting. I found it almost intolerable—it drives home the cruelty of solitary confinement. It's mind-boggling to me that the artist managed to create such a visceral effect without ever having been to the prison. I disagree with you a bit, Jon, on the matter of Stay Tuned. It felt like it belonged in a museum—too didactic. It was a greatest-hits tour of famed political music, presented literally with too much explanation. It's too pat, listening to Pussy Riot in an actual jail cell. And this is an encapsulation of what I occasionally find frustrating about Ai's work: He just can't help himself. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with big, obvious art, but without fail I find myself responding much, much more to the pieces that are more abstract. (In the case of this show, that's Refraction and the psych-ward sound installation—such a similar concept to "stay tuned, but done with a lighter touch!) I have trouble separating my left-brained appreciation for Ai as a dissident with my right-brained indifference to much of his art. I believe in his message and I'm certainly happy that Alcatraz gets to play host to such an unapologetically political show. A lot of it was quite beautiful—I love what Ai does with porcelain, and "Blossom" was really lovely—and all of it is technically impressive. But now, two days after seeing the show, I can't say that the majority of what I saw really, really stuck in my guts, brain, or heart.

JS: I have a lot of the same reaction. But even so, you can’t help but applaud the effort even if you’re not bowled over by the art. What else did you like? How about Refraction, a giant wing made out of Tibetan solar cookers and teapots and ladders and such? I really wanted to get closer to it and interact with it, but viewers are purposely separated from the piece by means of a literal shooting gallery, a long narrow walkway where prison guards used to stand sentry with rifles at the ready, directly over the prisoners working below. By keeping us behind that narrow partition, I think we are supposed to be implicated as the jailers in this setup. This to me was a head-scratcher.

EC: I think that was the intention, and it was powerful in a sense, but I found it very difficult to see the work—you're peering through dirty, broken windows, in a dank, narrow hallway. But from what I did see, the piece was gorgeous, and the way it worked in the space—this beautiful, bird-like thing, straining against the ceiling in a depressing concrete box—was an evocative comment on imprisonment. As you said, the guy loves metaphor. I'm still puzzling over the significance of the tea kettles, though.

JS: Me too. Final verdict: Is it worth the effort and expense of booking a trip out to Alcatraz between now and April 15 to see this exhibition?

EC: Absolutely.

JS: Agreed. Ai may not be a better dissident than he is an artist, but there’s nobody quite like him, and nowhere quite like Alcatraz. The hype is justified.

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