After all, it doesn't seem like he'll get another chance any time soon. Chinese authorities confiscated Ai's passport three years ago and have refused to return it, barring him from traveling abroad. Ai has been forced to develop the Alcatraz works in his Beijing studio and will have to remotely manage the installation of the show, whose themes deal with incarceration, freedom of expression and activism.
"I was in California for one year. At that time, I was working hard to paint people's houses or repaint people's houses, or do the gardening, to make a living," Ai said, laughing, at his Beijing studio recently. "I haven't visited [Alcatraz]. I never even had the idea. I never knew it was so popular."
Ai's Alcatraz show is a joint project of the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which oversee the penitentiary-turned-park, and the San Francisco-based For-Site Foundation, a nonprofit that commissions artwork in public places.
Ai's sculpture, sound and mixed-media works will occupy four locations in the old prison: the New Industries Building, A Block, the dining hall and the hospital, according to For-Site. With the exception of the dining hall, the exhibition spaces were previously off-limits to visitors. The show runs Sept. 27 through late April, but tickets go on sale June 27 on a rolling, 90-day advance schedule. (Tickets for Sept. 28 admission, for example, will go on sale June 28, and so on.)
The exhibition will be included at no additional charge with regular Alcatraz ferry-tour tickets. San Francisco radio station KQED reported that limited admission to Alcatraz — often in high demand regardless — is expected to be particularly difficult during Ai's show.
Ai said he wasn't prepared to share specifics of the show yet. He would say only that it's "a heavy topic" but that it also will have a "light touch" that will "make people remember."
Ai said he had collected movies about the famous prison but had yet to watch them. The artist, however, had heard stories about the facility and was looking through books and catalogs about the space. For-Site Executive Director Cheryl Haines has traveled repeatedly to Beijing to coordinate the project.
For-Site says that it expects more than 500,000 people to see "@Large" and that the organization has raised nearly $90,000 on Kickstarter to fund a team of art guides who will "answer visitors' questions and help people understand and connect" with the artwork.