The New York Times reported a few days ago that Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has become one of the sharpest critics of Beijing's government, would be staging an exhibition at our very own Alcatraz Island next September. According to the Times, " It also promises to be a high-profile project for Mr. Ai, who said by phone from Beijing that he has never visited Alcatraz but is interested in exploring conditions in which individuals are stripped of basic human rights: 'The idea of loss of freedom as a punishment raises philosophical questions.'"
Seems perfect, right? Ai served 81 days as a political prisoner—and still suffers under travel restrictions—for his critical investigation into shoddy classroom construction that killed thousands of children during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. What better place for him to stage a exhibition than the spot where Al Capone served time for the very same crime—tax evasion—that the Chinese government used as pretext to jail the artist. It's a perfect parallel, right? Right?
Except it doesn't make one bit of sense. Ai got thrown in jail for challenging a repressive government. Al Capone, was, you know, a violent gangster. Ai is not (that we know of). Aren't we happy when folks who should be in prison end up in prison? Alcatraz had lots of those guys. The ones who are not so much noble freedom fighters as, well, horrible murderers. The Birdman of Alcatraz, whom Ai's local backers sent the biopic for inspiration—manslaughter and murder. And goodness, do we really need any more art inspired by Boston gangster Whitey Bugler, who served time on The Rock in the '50s? Wasn't that Scorsese film equivalent of Steel Wheels enough?
Do we think that Ai is going to turn in a bunch of tourist-oriented caricatures of famous mug shots? Of course not. He's smarter than that. The show might not even have any work that Ai has done speaking directly to the location. But it's a big opportunity that's being missed.
Because the real Ai Weiwei equivalents at Alcatraz aren't the prisoner. They're the Indians.
Back in 1969, a group of Native activists occupied the island, which by then had ceased to be used as a prison, to raise resistance to Federal assimilationist policies, which had sought to break up tribes and relocate them to urban areas. The occupation, which ended up lasting 19 months, was a watershed moment in the modern political history of Native Americans. And in the broad sweep of things, if you are looking for victims of governmental repression—ones who unlike the incarcerated misanthropes actually deserve sympathy—you don't have to go any further than to loook at what history of Native Americans
So consider this an open letter to Ai. (This post probably won't make it over the Great Firewall, but we're sure he subscribes to our print edition.) Don't forget the real stakes at Alcatraz. You and the natives are the real parallel people here.
But hey, whatever happens, thanks in advance for giving us locals a reason to visit. We haven't been out there since the last time our cousins from Minneapolis visited during the Frank Jordan administration.