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“What If I Brought You a Prison?”

Sarah Amelar | September 18, 2014 | Story Galleries and Performance

In September 2011, the dissident artist Ai Weiwei was reeling. A few months earlier, he’d spent 81 days under constant surveillance in a Chinese detention center—nominally for various nonviolent charges, but actually, many believe, as retribution for investigating his government’s role in shoddy school construction and the deaths of thousands of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Before that, according to the artist, he’d been put under house arrest briefly and had sustained life-threatening head injuries at the hands of the Chinese police. And when finally released from detention, in late June 2011, he’d been stripped of his passport.

Cheryl Haines, Ai’s longtime friend and colleague, watched it all unfold from nearly 6,000 miles away. As the founding executive director of the For-Site Foundation—a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to contemporary, place-based art—she had most recently worked with Ai the previous year, when he’d contributed a blue-and-white Chinese porcelain screech owl roost to her Presidio Habitats project (a curated group of dwellings for the park’s flora and fauna). The two managed to stay more or less in touch afterward, and following his arrest, she participated in demonstrations at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco to protest his detention.

By the time that Haines arrived in Beijing to check in on her friend—then barely three months out of detention—she was both relieved and concerned.

“What can I do to help?” she recalls asking as they sat together in his gray-brick live-work studio, a modern, loftlike variation on a traditional Chinese courtyard house that he had designed himself. “Is there any small thing I can do to support you?”

He responded with the levelheaded conviction that Haines had come to expect from him. As she tells it, he simply said, “You can bring my work to a broader audience.”

With that, an idea came to her. “What if I brought you a prison?” she blurted.

The artist looked her hard in the eye and said, “Yes, I would like that.”

And so it was that Ai—who has never set foot on Alcatraz Island and still has no passport for travel outside of China—came to stage an unprecedented, site-specific installation in the historic San Francisco prison. Titled @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, the exhibition will run from September 27, 2014, to April 26, 2015, taking place in parts of the prison usually closed to the public. Months before the show’s opening, it was already being heralded as a major international art event; according to For-Site, at least half a million people are expected to make the ferry trek to see it. Tickets will be available on a rolling basis up to three months in advance of a given visit date and are expected to be in high demand.

But getting here was far from seamless. Haines had fantasized years earlier about orchestrating an installation at Alcatraz, but offering a prison is one thing—delivering it is quite another. The National Park Service, which oversees the island, regularly turns down requests for creative interventions there—even when the artist isn’t a world-famous political dissident. “People come to us with all kinds of ideas for Alcatraz,” says Frank Dean, the National Park Service’s superintendent for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. “We get approached a lot. And the easiest thing would be to say no.”

So Haines’s first challenge was to win over the two people who, in effect, hold the keys to Alcatraz: Dean and his colleague Greg Moore, head of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the nonprofit responsible for programming on the island. Their approval might have seemed out of reach but for the fact that she had a huge advantage: a successful track record of collaborations with them, including International Orange, a 2012 installation at Fort Point celebrating the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th anniversary.

Fortunately, Dean and Moore were instantly enthusiastic about Haines’s proposal. “It was such a compelling idea,” says the superintendent. “Even with Ai Weiwei being provocative and somewhat controversial, his advocacy for freedom of expression and human rights—and his own experience under house arrest—really fit with our interests at Alcatraz.” He and Moore agreed: “Though we’d never done anything like this on the island before,” recalls Dean, “we saw the opportunity to give visitors a different experience of Alcatraz, to look deeply at questions of freedom—not just the great gangster stories from the ’30s.”

But Dean also recognized the risks. “We didn’t want an international incident to emerge from what we thought was a good idea,” he adds, noting that he dutifully briefed the U.S. Department of State. (Without learning the particulars of Ai’s installation, Washington green-lighted the project within 10 days.)

Still, there were other hurdles. Any exhibition at Alcatraz would need to coexist comfortably with the regular tour, which draws 1.4 million visitors a year—up to 5,000 a day. (@Large will be open at no additional charge to all ticketed visitors to Alcatraz.) And the island doesn’t exactly have the amenities of a museum or art gallery: It’s accessible only by ferry and to this day has to generate its own power. On top of that, at least $3.7 million had to be raised. But Haines was persistent. (The funding came, she says, “95 percent from private patronage or individual donors.”)

And then there was the small matter of providing Ai with the tools to create a museum-scale exhibition of entirely new work from a studio an ocean away. Though the artist had lived in the United States during most of the ’80s and early ’90s, and had even spent a year in California (where he worked as a housepainter and gardener), it had never occurred to him to tour the penitentiary turned national monument. But this isn’t the first time that he has managed to generate site-specific art for spaces he has never seen. For the 2013 Venice Biennale, he re-created his prison experience in large-scale, iron-encased dioramas inside a Venetian church. Earlier this year, Evidence, his one-man show in Berlin, took over 18 rooms in the Martin-Gropius-Bau as well as the sunken atrium, which he covered with 6,000 wooden stools in a reference to rural China. Ai’s ability to envision projects like this from thousands of miles away, says Haines, is a testament to his “extraordinary understanding of space and the built environment.”

But even extraordinary understanding needs a little help. In the past 18 months, Haines has made the 6,000-mile trip to Ai’s Beijing studio six times, bringing the artist books, photographs, historical documents, and a souvenir-shop replica of an original prison jacket. She has provided him with video walk-throughs and a DVD of the 1979 Clint Eastwood classic Escape from Alcatraz. Her team, she says, has equipped him with “obsessively detailed architectural drawings” and the elaborate 3-D models he requested, accurate down to specific jail-cell fixtures.

Information on the art itself remains under wraps for now. According to Haines, that’s because the pieces are “still in process, changing and evolving, and Ai wants as much time as possible to develop these very complex works.” But here’s what we know: Seven site-specific installations involving large-scale sculpture, sound, and mixed media are planned for four locations on Alcatraz. Two of those areas are normally off-limits to visitors: the New Industries Building (where working prisoners manned the biggest laundry in the western United States—on an island with no water of its own) and the A-Block cells, the only surviving unaltered section of the island’s 1912 military prison. @Large will also occupy the inmates’ hospital (previously on view only during evening tours) and the dining hall.

As for the broad themes, “Our show is about freedom, ironically,” Ai told Haines in a recent conversation. “The human struggle for freedom of speech, for a better world, for a more civilized world, has always been restricted, punished, damaged. And it’s still happening in many, many nations. So that is a strong reason why we have to do this show at Alcatraz.”

The title @Large nods to the essential role of the Internet in Ai’s unflinching activism (after his blog exposing the Chinese government was shut down in 2009, he switched to Twitter). Of course, “at large” can also mean “at liberty” or “escaped and not yet captured.” And here, Moore points out, “we have a historical place that was considered inescapable, hosting an artist currently unable to leave his country—whose work has traveled the world.”

The often striking transformation of space and objects tends to be just the beginning in Ai’s installations. “And to carry the essential ideas about freedom, to let everybody, even children, appreciate it,” says Ai, “we have to make it beautiful. We have to make it fly.”

How to see Ai At Alcatraz: Tickets to @Large are included in the price of admission to Alcatraz island—$30 for adults—and are available up to three months in advance at or at the Alcatraz Landing ticket office at Pier 33.

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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