Photos: Ai Weiwei Alcatraz tour: Legos, protest songs and prison cells

In an unprecedented exhibition, Ai Weiwei installations devoted to freedom of expression occupy San Francisco's old Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. "With Wind," which greets visitors to an industrial building where prisoners used to work, takes the form of a traditional Chinese dragon kite.
(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

Portraits of dissidents crafted from hundreds of thousands of Legos. A wing-like sculpture made from Tibetan solar cookers. Bright piles of white porcelain florals. And a series of sound installations featuring protest songs from around the world.

Despite being unable to leave China, artist Ai Weiwei — with the help of teams of assistants, a curator who bounced back and forth between California and China, and a whole lot of Skype — has nonetheless managed to create a series of large-scale installations on San Francisco's Alcatraz Island.

Though he is held in a "soft" detention (his passport has been revoked) since 2011, presumably for work and statements critical of the Chinese government, Ai hasn't stopped creating charged, political works, often on the issues of human rights and free speech. It is these themes that he revisits in "@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz," a series of elaborate, large-scale installations at the old penitentiary — a place he has never visited, to create an installation he will likely never see.

As with all things Ai, a master of the dramatic gesture and voluble presence on social media, it is quite the spectacle.

I hit the heavily attended media preview Wednesday. Here's my photo diary (the images are my own unless otherwise noted):

THE TRIP BEGINS. The Ai Weiwei tour started with an early-morning boat ride from Pier 33, north through the San Francisco Bay, to Alcatraz Island. Despite predictions of rain, the sun came out. Mother Nature seemed to be tipping her hat to Ai.

CHOW TIME. The folks from the For-Site Foundation, the organization that sponsored Ai's show, were kind enough to provide customary journalist victuals during the boat ride. Certainly, watching the press eat is its own work of art.

THE ISLAND OF BIRDS. After about 15 minutes, Alcatraz Island — named by the Spanish in the 18th century for its "alcatraces," a type of seabird — came into view. (Since I couldn't get a clear shot on the rocking boat, and because it's hard to shoot with a donut in your hand, I've borrowed this image from Ben Fash, who photographed it for the For-Site Foundation.)

Over the Alcatraz landing, a sign that says "Indians Welcome"
Landing on Alcatraz Island for the Ai Weiwei show. The exhibition “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” was staged at the old Alcatraz penitentiary in April of 2015.
(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

MILITARY ROOTS. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Alcatraz served as one of several military fortifications in San Francisco Bay, as well as a military prison. Among its earliest inmates were Indians who resisted westward expansion, including Kaetena, a Chiricahua Apache chief who was a contemporary of Geronimo. It was turned into a federal penitentiary in 1934.

INDIAN HISTORY. Certainly, one of the most remarkable pieces of Alcatraz history has everything to do with Indians. The prison was closed by Robert Kennedy in 1963 due to high operating costs. But in late 1969 it gained new life when the island was overtaken and held by several dozen Native American rights activists who declared it Indian land, occupying it until the middle of 1971. It was during that time that the water tower and other structures were covered in graffiti (which, believe it or not, has been dutifully restored). In 1972, Alcatraz was turned over to the National Park Service.

GREETINGS. After arriving on the island, there was some light speechifying on behalf of the park service, a local conservancy and various art types. In this image, For-Site executive director and exhibition curator Cheryl Haines welcomed journalists before the island's New Industries building, which contains a couple of the larger Ai installations.

I really have to take my hat off to Haines on this one. Pulling off this exhibition was a pretty superhuman feat: Alcatraz is one of the most visited national parks in the nation, it's a designated landmark, it's on the National Register of Historic Places and it's an important seabird nesting site. The bureaucracy must have been spectacular. As a result, the art had to have a light touch: no heavy machinery, no bright lights at night. "There have been a lot of restrictions," said Haines. But somehow, it all came together, she said, for an exhibition that reveals, "such humanity, such beauty."

ENTER THE DRAGON. The first work greeting visitors making their way into the New Industries building, which once housed the laundry and other prison work operations, is Ai's take on the traditional Chinese dragon kite called "With Wind." As part of the project, the artist had Wi-Fi installed in the buildings so that visitors could share images on social media. The dragon should certainly make for a whole lot of Instagramming.

HONORING FREE THINKERS. The kite is massive, winding through the entire industrial space from which it is suspended, making it impossible to convey the piece in a single shot. The individual panels are all handmade from paper, silk and bamboo, with many of them featuring quotes by proponents of free speech. This piece contains a quote by Le Quoc Quan, a human rights lawyer and democracy activist jailed in Vietnam. It reads: "... my words are well-intended and innocent."

THE WORST OF THE WORST. Alcatraz housed the "worst of the worst" criminals in its history, including figures such as Al Capone and George "Machine Gun" Kelly. Now it's a must-see tourist destination, complete with gift shop. In Ai's hands, however, it is turned on its head: a space to think about those who are jailed for advocating free speech; a place of confinement turned into a platform for the free circulation of ideas.

HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF LEGOS. The main work space inside the New Industries building, where prisoners once manufactured everything from gloves to shoes to furniture, is now occupied by a series of floor installations crafted entirely out of Lego bricks. Titled "Trace," the pieces feature the names and faces of 176 people who have been jailed or exiled for their beliefs or political affiliations. On first impact, the piece has almost a textile feel, as if you're laying eyes on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, an installation that marked AIDS-related deaths in the United States.

HONORING THE SILENCED. A detail shot of "Trace" shows an image of Fariba Kamalabadi, who was jailed in Iran, presumably for being a leader of the Baha'i faith, a persecuted religious group there. The installation includes books that provide biographical information on each of the individuals featured. After Saturday, that information will be available at

A FEW FAMILIAR FACES.Many of the dissidents featured in Ai's piece, from countries around the globe, from Bahrain to Vietnam, may not be familiar to most Americans. But there are a few recognizable figures in the mix, including Martin Luther King Jr., Wikileaker Bradley Manning and National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden (seen above), who is currently exiled in Russia.

THE WORLD OUTSIDE. Looking out the window of the room where Ai's Lego piece was installed, it was hard not to think about what it would be like to have your freedom of movement curtailed (especially in our own prison-happy culture). Beyond Alcatraz, the natural beauty of the San Francisco Bay is pretty wondrous. It seems like it might as well be another planet when viewed from behind guano-stained glass.

BUILT FROM AFAR. Certainly, a strange aspect hovering over the whole exhibition is that Ai has never been to Alcatraz and was therefore not familiar with its spaces. Curator Haines says he was meticulous, however, in requesting building schematics, from the size and layout of the rooms to the colors of the walls.

Even so, there is a remoteness to some of the work. Most of the activists featured were Asian and Middle Eastern. Which made me wonder if an artist who had been able to spend time in the Americas might have thought to include Venezuelan activists jailed by the Hugo Chavez regime? Or indigenous environmental activists imprisoned for defending the Amazon? Or, the Peruvian and Mexican journalists who are rounded up simply for doing their jobs? But it's hard to answer any of those questions, since China will not let Ai travel.

ENTERING THE GUN GALLERY. After soaking up the kite dragon and the Lego installation, we moved to a narrow passage known as the "gun gallery." These slim pathways were elevated above the workshops in the New Industries building so that guards could keep an eye on their charges working below.

A SCULPTURE IMPRISONED. From this path, viewers could then gaze down on a work of sculpture by Ai titled "Refraction." Made out of Tibetan solar cookers, and dotted with pots and tea kettles, it took on the shape of an oversized bird's wing, a symbol of freedom trapped in a prison, viewable only through a series of barred, dirty windows.

In person, it is practically impossible to see the piece in its entirety because you are essentially gazing at Ai's work through a cage. This draws the viewer right into the debate: What role do we have as spectators, or as thoughtless consumers of Chinese goods, for the detention of people like Ai (who was jailed in 2011 without being charged with a crime)?

Above all, "Refraction" represents a remarkable use of space, made more remarkable by the fact that the artist had to visualize all of this without being able to visit the site. The only way to see it whole is to admire it online.

BITS OF FOUND SCULPTURE. A big part of what gives Ai's installation its power is Alcatraz itself: like this forlorn row of broken toilets in the New Industries building, standing like an arrangement of ready-made sculptures.

PORCELAIN FLOWERS. In fact, Ai has made good use of some of the old infrastructure. In the hospital wing, the artist installed a series of porcelain sculptures of flowers into fixtures such as sinks, tubs and toilets. These are illuminated, giving them an otherworldly glow, such as the flowers in the sink above.

GETTING THEIR MOMENT. Naturally, the installations were dutifully recorded by all of the reporters in attendance.

ROOMS FILLED WITH CHANTS. From here, the exhibition led to a pair of stark psychiatric isolation chambers — dubbed "bug rooms" by inmates — where Ai has installed two sound pieces: one, a Hopi chant; the other, a chant produced by the exiled Tibetan monks of the Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala, India. In the artist's eyes, these are two groups that have resisted political and cultural subjugation: the Hopi by European settlers and the Tibetans by the Chinese government.

In fact, Hopi Indians were among the first waves of prisoners to Alcatraz in the late 19th century, when many were jailed for refusing to send their children to government boarding schools. (Photo by Jan Stürmann, for the For-Site Foundation.)

INTO THE CELL BLOCKS. From the psychiatric unit, I then made my way over to the cell blocks, where Ai has installed another series of sound pieces in one of the oldest, unrefurbished parts of the prison: Cell Block A.

A MOMENT TO REFLECT. "Stay Tuned" was one of my favorite pieces in the exhibition for its subtlety. In individual cells in Cell Block A, Ai piped in songs of protest through the ventilation grates. In one cell played a song by Nigerian singer Fela Kuti; in another, one by Pussy Riot. The cells are tiny and each was supplied with a single stool to sit down and listen. In this image, I'm parked in the cell playing Chilean singer Victor Jara's "Manifesto." There is nothing to Instagram here. All there is to do is sit and listen and imagine what it would be like to inhabit one of these tiny spaces for decades on end.

SENDING POSTCARDS TO PRISONERS. There is an activist streak that charges the exhibition and this piece (which I photographed later in my kitchen due to some shaky camera work) is a great example of that. In the Alcatraz dining hall, Ai has installed "Yours Truly," which owes a debt to Amnesty International's tradition of letter-writing. It consists of a series of postcards addressed to political prisoners around the world, from Uzbekistan to Saudi Arabia to the United States. (In the U.S., the prisoner is Shakir Hamoodi, who is doing time at Leavenworth for sending money to his family in Iraq.)

Viewers are invited to take these and inscribe a message. They are then mailed out by "@Large" guides. Many of the cards feature images of birds, a symbol of freedom that makes many appearances throughout many of Ai's pieces at Alcatraz.

TIME FOR THE MERCH. Naturally, once I was done looking at all of the art, I headed straight to the gift shop, because I was curious to see how Ai's ideas would be merchandised. In between the kitchen magnets, tin trays and collectible jailhouse keys, you could buy a book of "Weiwe-isms," a little black book filled with quotes. (Not cult-like at all.)

DECISIONS, DECISIONS. It was a tough choice, because there were also Ai Weiwei mousepads...

...but I stuck to the Ai Weiwei luggage tag.

ON A SERIOUS NOTE... Is "@Large" worth the trouble of getting and visiting Alcatraz? I'd say that it is. When the last convict left Alcatraz in 1963, he famously said, "It's mighty good to get up and leave. This Rock ain't good for nobody." Well, it's doing some good now — a storied old jailhouse in which to consider the meaning of freedom.

"@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz" is on view through April 26, 2015, at Alcatraz Island, San Francisco,