Why is Ai Weiwei Breaking Into Alcatraz?

China’s most controversial artist selected America’s most notorious prison as the home for his new show

Ai sits in a replica of the prison cell in which he was detained in 2011. No one in China, he has said, "has a solid belief or trust in society." (Gilles Sabrie/LightRocket/Getty Images)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Ai Weiwei has never been to Alcatraz, but he has spent three years constructing the infamous island prison in his mind. Sitting at a long wooden table within his gray brick courtyard studio-home in northern Beijing, he has pored over books, memoirs and photographs of what used to be America’s foremost maximum-security penitentiary, a super-bastille in San Francisco Bay.

Ai has studied pictures of the rocky pathways that wind around the island’s cliffs, the water tower still covered with graffiti from the Native American occupation of the island, the deceptively calm gray waters that made the prison nearly inescapable. He has formed his own mental map of the three-tiered cellblocks with their tool-proof steel bars, the mess hall equipped with wall-mounted tear-gas canisters, the austere prison hospital and primitive psychiatric ward, where Al Capone was treated for syphilis and dementia, and the New Industries Building, where inmates once washed Army linens and fashioned rubber mats. From across the Pacific, the artist and provocateur has been at work creating a seven-part art installation and political meditation, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, to sit within the prison’s historic buildings—several of which have never before been open to the public.

Because his passport remains in the hands of Chinese government authorities, he can’t leave the country. So one of the tricks he has learned, like an inmate who can only imagine distant worlds from within his cell, is to conceive exhibits first in his mind, then at his studio in Beijing. For the Alcatraz exhibition, Ai has paid particular attention to exact measurements—the height of cellblock ceilings, the width of staircases and steel doors—and, he told me, he has taken care to use materials that can be shipped innocuously through suspicious Chinese customs services, sent by plane and finally by barge to the island for reassembly, a nearly 6,000-mile journey. There has never been a bridge to Alcatraz.

Ai, who is 57, is China’s most controversial, internationally famous and eclectic artist, and his multi-media compositions are perhaps best known for their anti-authoritarian bent. He has spent plenty of time contemplating imprisonment. On April 3, 2011, “I was secretly detained, like a kidnapping,” he told me in June at his Beijing studio. At Beijing Capital International Airport, where he’d gone to board a flight to Hong Kong, government agents, he recalled, “pulled a black sheath over my head, shoved me into a car bound for an unknown location.” He was released on June 22, pounds lighter and much wearier, but without his passport—and without being formally charged with an offense. Several of his associates were also detained. “I’ve seen so many people around me arrested or disappeared in China, often falsely accused.”

In the first art exhibition at the pen-turned-park, the famed iconoclast hopes to broaden his politically charged reach. Portrait by Jasper James. (Photo-illustration: Bill Whitcher; Alcatraz: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
"Maybe I'm just an undercover artist in the disguise of a dissident," Ai wrote recently. Materials in his Beijing studio this year. (Jasper James)
In June, Ai laid out some of his Alcatraz-bound Lego portraits of political prisoners. (Jan Stürmann)
Ai poses inside the entrance of his studio home in Beijing with neon lettering on the courtyard wall. (Jasper James)
The art installation “Refraction” is being built in Beijing for the seven-part exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. (Jan Stürmann)
Ai’s “Cube Light” (2008), made of glass crystals, lights and metal, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. (Cathy Carver / Hirshhorn Museum, SI)

A few months after his release from prison, Cheryl Haines, executive director of the For-Site Foundation, a San Francisco-based arts group specializing in exhibitions and large-scale works that illuminate significant places, visited Ai in Beijing. “He said he wanted to address what happens when people lose the ability to communicate freely, and also to bring his ideas and artwork to a broader spectrum of people” outside the art world circuit and those interested in Chinese human rights, she told me on a June trip to China. “What if I brought you a prison?” she recalled asking Ai. He nodded.

She had one in mind, but wasn’t sure if she could pull it off. Still, she’d previously arranged collaborations with the National Park Service, which now manages Alcatraz, so she knew whom to call.

Frank Dean, general superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which runs Alcatraz, first learned the history of the island when he was a young Park Service ranger. His earliest job out of college, nearly four decades ago, was giving tours of the former prison site just after it initially opened to the public. “It’s an iconic place that captures people’s imagination,” he said by phone from San Francisco. That means, he added, laughing, “We get a lot of crazy ideas that come in every year.”

Haines’ proposal—an installation by Ai Weiwei—“really grabbed us,” Dean said. “It’s a compelling story, with the artist and the island—putting those two together just seemed to make sense. I thought it was something we should try.” But he also worried that it was “a bit of a risk for us. We didn’t want to create an international incident.” The next step was securing permission from the U.S. State Department, not a precaution that an artist typically has to take.

Ai said he has no standard creative process, and the workings of his mind are a mystery to himself. “It happens through conversation, through discussion, or through my dreams.” He’s largely a conceptual artist—“more project-oriented than studio-oriented,” he said. “I’m not really an artist giving a finished project, but want to develop ideas.”

For all his intimate knowledge of Chinese prisons, he’d never given Alcatraz or the U.S. penal system much thought. “I basically knew nothing about it.”

The name Alcatraz comes from the Spanish explorer Don Juan Manuel de Ayala, the first European known to navigate San Francisco Bay, in 1775. He called it “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” the island of the pelicans. With no fresh water available, not much other than birds lived on the rocky outcrop for the next 75 years.

In 1850, President Millard Fillmore designated the island as a fortress to protect San Francisco, then in the grips of the gold rush. But its 111 hulking cannons were never fired offensively, and the island found its purpose in detention, not defense.

During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers and suspected sympathizers were housed there. After the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War, the prison population swelled with Native American chiefs and with sailors. The prison gained a measure of fame after World War I, when Philip Grosser, one of several conscientious objectors held there, compared it to the infamous French colonial penal colony in his book, Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island.

The rash of spectacular bank heists that struck the U.S. heartland in the early 1930s, combined with the rise of notorious gangsters in the Prohibition era, turned the island into a different kind of prison. In 1933, the military transferred Alcatraz to the Department of Justice, and a year later, the first armored rail cars arrived by barge carrying high-profile inmates to what federal authorities called “the prison system’s prison.”

One of those rail cars with barred windows, traveling from the Atlanta federal penitentiary, carried 35-year-old “Scarface” Al Capone—former king of the Chicago underworld, then serving an 11-year sentence for income-tax evasion. Coast Guard cutters and press boats gathered in the harbor to witness the spectacle. Capone was later joined by George “Machine Gun” Kelly, who kidnapped an oil tycoon for $200,000 ransom; Mickey Cohen, a brutal Los Angeles mafia boss; and Roy Gardner, the great train robber.

Alcatraz’s first warden, James Johnston, who had previously reformed San Quentin and Folsom Prison, designed both the physical layout of Alcatraz and its system of discipline. “What it boiled down to in essence was that Alcatraz would be a prison of maximum-security custody with minimum privileges,” he wrote in his 1949 memoir.

Each single-person cell, outfitted with a steel cot, was 5 feet by 9 feet. The wake-up bell sounded at 6:30 a.m., and by 6:55 inmates stepped to the front of their cells for the first of several daily head counts. Guard whistles regulated meal times. Inmates worked eight hours a day, most of them in the concrete-pillared New Industries Building. Inmates who broke the rules were held in solitary confinement in the dreaded D Block.

While the prison’s harsh policies drew criticism, what finally closed the facility was its extravagance. The cost of housing a prisoner on Alcatraz, where all supplies, including potable water, arrived by boat, was more than three times higher than at other federal prisons. In 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy announced Alcatraz would close.

The island leapt back into headlines when Native American activists, protesting unjust treatment of native peoples, occupied it for 19 months beginning in 1969, eventually prompting President Richard Nixon to rescind, in 1970, the government’s “tribal termination policy,” which mandated forced integration and urbanization of indigenous peoples. In 1976 Alcatraz became part of the National Park Service, and it now draws more than 1.4 million visitors annually.

Despite the restrictions on Ai’s travels, his work has been widely seen outside China. A far-ranging exhibition, According to What?, opened in 2012 at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. And a collection of photographs he took in Manhattan in the 1980s, shown at the Asia Society in New York in 2011, revealed how the gritty metropolis inspired him as a young man. But planning a series of original installations tailored to a historic site was a novel experiment for Ai, and came with myriad restrictions. He could in no way alter the prison buildings; he could not control the lighting; he could not disrupt the habitat of birds that nest on the island. “Alcatraz has its own history,” Ai said. “It’s never been an art space. You have to measure everything. Actually, it’s mentally and psychologically interesting to me, because in a way it brings us inside the life of the jail. The inmates in a prison have to follow very clear instructions, have to follow them exactly, and so do we [as site artists]. That’s the way we work together,” he says of his collaboration with Haines. “The goal is not really to create something beautiful, but something precise.”

The installation—which explores ideas of confinement and what it means to be a modern political prisoner—will run from September 27, 2014, through April 26, 2015, and be open to visitors who purchase the normal Alcatraz ticket. Greg Moore, president and chief executive officer of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, said he hopes that the show will bring a wider audience to Ai’s work—and meanwhile shed new light on Alcatraz. While Alcatraz’s most famous inmates were convicted felons like Capone, in earlier times the facility also held what might be called prisoners of conscience, including, in World War I, conscientious objectors to military service. “I think it’s an amazing juxtaposition,” Moore said, “to have a site so associated with confinement—a military and federal prison—now embracing creativity and artistic expression.”

Cheryl Haines is standing in the large, sparsely decorated dining room of Ai’s Beijing compound. Today she wants to get Ai’s reaction to an early template of exhibit booklets that will be sold on Alcatraz.

“First of all,” says Ai, “don’t have me on the cover—pick one of the more recognizable prisoners.” With his bushy beard and resplendent belly, Ai himself is an instantly recognizable figure. Today he’s in a battered T-shirt and shorts, though sometimes he favors rough denim shirts oddly similar to Alcatraz’s prison uniforms.

Looking at page proofs of the exhibition booklet, which contains passages from Martin Luther King Jr. and Vaclav Havel, he offers his critique. “Don’t have two portraits from China facing each other—mix up the geography.” A plump white cat with blue eyes, one of the many strays that live in his compound, parades over the page proofs.

About Christina Larson

Christina Larson is an award-winning journalist based in Beijing. Larson is the China correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and the Asia contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Read more from this author |

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus