I’ve never been much for prisons. They’re scary, and being someone with an active imagination and a personal identity that leads to punishment or death in many places, I’ve always had a certain “there but for the grace” reaction. During a high-school social-action trip to Washington, DC our youth group visited a local medium-security federal prison and spoke with prisoners. It was an important experience, but I admit I felt far more in my element at the soup kitchen, to which I returned to help cook and serve on our choose-your-assignment day. I’d still make the same choice. So it’s probably not a surprise that – for all the time I spend in SF – I’d never set foot on the island of Alcatraz until a week ago when I was drawn there, in a group organized by my good friend Amy (thanks again!) to see a special installation of art created in absentia by Ai WeiWei specifically for this former prison location…indeed, for this location which is probably one of the most famous and certainly one of the most tourist-friendly former prisons in both the US and the world at large.
Indeed, it’s that very tourism-friendliness which has helped keep me away from Alcatraz: I’ve imagined that many visitors go with a sort of prisoner-theme-park idea in mind. I start out deeply uncomfortable with the basic statistics and facts about race, opportunity and incarceration in the US…then I add my uncomfortable awareness of how the US’s crime and punishment statistics measure up against other peer nations which pride themselves on openness, opportunity, and democracy for all (spoiler alert – do some research, but last I knew we don’t compare any better there than we do on gun violence per capita…), and in the end I’ve just never managed to get out to Alcatraz.
I’m so glad that Ai WeiWei and the creators of this exhibit gave me a good reason and impetus to visit. His work has made me think a great deal about freedom – freedom of mind, of body, of spirit. Freedom from as well as freedom to do, to think. There’s a range of installations – audio clips heard inside a small cell of famous prisoners of conscience from around the world, ranging from Martin Luther King, through the Robben Island Boys, to Pussy Riot. There’s an audio installation in the psychiatric observation cells, with a Hopi ceremony recorded. Through this I learned that among the earliest prisoners at Alcatraz in the 1890s were quite a few Hopi elders, who supported the parents of their tribe in refusing to enroll their children in the schools that were to “modernize” their children. (Translation: rip them from their homes & roots, and leave them confused about their place in this race- and class-driven world.) He’s got beautiful kites — dragon and other kites — with messages from fighters for freedom of conscience and ideas around the world. There’s a huge room whose floor is full of lego portraits of prisoners of politics and conscience around the world, and postcards where you can write you own message to some of these folks in many nations.
All in all it’s a very thought-provoking and educational exhibit. And being on Alcatraz, in the heart of one of the world’s most beautiful bays, it’s also a beautiful outing. Check it out if you’re in the area during the coming months. I believe and hope that posting these images is in line with the artist’s wishes but do hope someone will inform me if I’m wrong in which case I’ll gladly remove any that don’t fit. Peace, health, freedom to be happy sad or thoughtful in the new year to one and all.
The exhibit-installation had many parts. The one called “blossom,” of which there’s an example above, was installed in the hospital ward. It made me think of the hundred-flowers campaign, and also of the buddhist tradition that the lotus flower derives some of its spiritual power from the fact that it represents beauty arising from the muck. In another part of the main prison ward were many audio segments, each playing inside an individual cell and each representing music or speeches from people and groups imprisoned for their ideas or art. That’s hard to capture in film – but the shot to (I hope) the right, showing the three tiers of cells, and the photo of text from one of Martin Luther King’s later speeches are both from that section. The dragon kite is from a segment called “With Wind,” and if you look at some of the photos closely you will see quotes from people imprisoned or threatened with prison for their ideas.