Tuesday, March 10, 2015

@ large

Alcatraz: it's so much more than just a prison.
—National Park Service narration on the solar- and wind-powered ferry

Although I've lived in San Francisco since I was 22, I'd only been to Alcatraz once. It's sort of a weird tourist attraction, a former military and maximum security prison that closed before I was born. But I was intrigued by a site-specific installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has been incredibly productive despite years of house arrest in Beijing. (I also saw his incredible show at Brooklyn Museum last June.)
This cheerful kinetic dragon would have been right at home in the Chinese New Year parade. Except on closer examination the panels are filled with quotes on freedom and repression. What good is a kite when it's tied up inside and can't fly free?

"Every one of us is a potential convict."
—Ai Weiwei
The signs are ironic and a bit poignant: nesting birds. Dead end. And warnings not to write on the walls. 
It's amusing until you realize you're in the mental hospital of a maximum security prison. The penalties were different if you could not leave. 
"Not so bad," I heard one woman comment to her husband. 

The flowers are lovely, thistles and narcissus and calla lilies and laurel bay trees. San Francisco is just out of reach in the distance. 

Privacy is a function of liberty.
—Edward Snowden

The hall of political prisoners evokes nothing so much as the Names project quilt. Except most of these prisoners are alive. 
And the portraits are made of LEGO. 

Upstairs in the cafeteria, you can write postcards to political prisoners. I wrote two, to protesters in Egypt and Vietnam, thanking them for speaking out, assuring them they were not forgotten. 

From 1969–1971, Native Americans occupied Alcatraz, which had been closed since 1963, reclaiming the rock and protesting the Vietnam war. 
Meanwhile spring break tourists were busy taking selfies in the main cell block. I preferred the moody empty corridors. This is where armed guards looked down on prisoners below. 
Home of the free…