Alcatraz @Large!

On a gorgeous Fall day my parents, Bev and Tom, and I paid a visit to Alcatraz island.  Alcatraz is one of the premier tourist destinations in the city.  If you have not been (this means you, SF denizen!), it is well worth the visit – especially right now.  Ai Weiwei’s show @Large is currently on display through April 26, 2015. The installations by this internationally renown, Chinese dissident artist are not to be missed.

Ai Weiwei is a critic of the Chinese government and in 2011 was incarcerated for 81 days on charges of tax evasion that were never officially filed. It is believed that these charges and his subsequent imprisonment were enacted as retaliation against Ai Weiwei’s very public, oppositional stance towards the Chinese government. Presently, he is not allowed to travel outside of China and the Alcatraz show was developed at his studio in Beijing.  Somehow, a show about freedom and speaking truth to power in one of the world’s most infamous prisons by a radical, truth-speaking artist seems fitting.

view from the boat
A view from the Alcatraz ferry. The ferry departs from Pier 33 and you can purchase tickets at
Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz is the most visited national park in the country. The audio tour is excellent giving you a sense of what it was like to be both an inmate and a guard on the island.
Indians Welcome
A less than welcoming sign greets you as you step from the ferry onto “The Rock” as Alcatraz is affectionately (or not) known. The Rock was the first lighthouse on the Pacific and functioned as such for 125 years. Identified by Spanish explorers in the 1700s, Alcatraz became a military prison in 1850 until 1933, when it evolved into its most famous form – a federal penitentiary for the country’s most intractable criminals.

It is important to note that before the Europeans and American military came, the first (and original) inhabitants were Native Californians. There are over 100 federally recognized tribes in California, more than any other state. I could not find any information on whether indigenous people lived on or utilized Alcatraz as a fishing spot prior to its “discovery” by the Spanish.

The Rock’s most well-known Native American history is recent.  From 1969 to 1971, American Indian activist, Richard Oakes, and a group of Bay Area native peoples occupied Alcatraz with the intention of obtaining a deed to the island and establishing a university, cultural center, and museum there. Their efforts became unglued when Oakes’ 13-year old daughter was killed during a fall on the island. Oakes left Alcatraz and soon thereafter did the rest of the movement’s members. Largely as a result of the group’s efforts, in 1975 the U.S. government passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

With Wind 1
A dragon’s head greets you as you enter the installation, “With Wind”. The dragon kite fills a large room in the New Industries Building. The ancient Chinese art form of the kite represents each person’s individual power and alludes to governments’ repression of that power.
With Wind Snowden Quote
The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill. –Ai Weiwei
Trace Room
In a second room, the installation, “Trace” appears. Portraits of 176 men and women imprisoned for their beliefs, affiliations, and speaking out against their governments are constructed as a carpet of legos. The images of these individuals were so powerful I hardly noticed they were made from a child’s toy.
Trace Naji Fateel
Naji Fateel, a Bahrainian human rights activist, has been imprisoned and tortured since 2007. His smiling face is so sweet and human to me.
Stay tuned prison cells
The installation, “Stay Tuned”, was next the stop on our tour. Stay tuned is a sound installation in 12 cells located in A Block. Visitors are invited to sit in each cell (on a very cold, hard metal stool) and listen to songs, spoken word, and music of individuals who were imprisoned for their creative and spiritual work. Dissidents and activists include Martin Luther King, Jr., Fela Kuti, and Pussy Riot.
Stay tuned inside the cell
This is a wall in the cell for Czech composer, Pavel Haas. Haas was Jewish and imprisoned in Terezin and Auschwitz concentration camps. He wrote at least eight compositions during his confinement before he was killed. Study for String Orchestra was chosen for his installation. I was so moved, I started to cry.
blossoms 1
In “Blossom”, bathtubs and sinks are filled with fragile white porcelain flowers. Installed in the hospital ward of the prison, Blossom could represent a symbol of caring, like sending flowers to a sick friend, or the fleeting quality of life as in the eventual decay of cut flowers. (Would you have guessed I was an art history major in college?)
Dad in the window
One of the best parts of @Large is getting to visit previously closed parts of the prison like the New Industries Building and the Hospital. Here my dad, Tom, tries to get a view from a window in the hospital.
blossoms your bath is ready
Your bath is ready, sir.  A view of a bathroom in the hospital. Creepy.
Prison sink
When I saw this sink in the New Industries Building, I couldn’t help but wonder, “what were the men that used this sink like? What did they think about?”. Even dilapidated and unused, humanness can still be felt here.
Tom and Bev
Although the exhibition was heavy and a trip to Alcatraz is always thought-provoking, my parents and I were able to celebrate their 55th Wedding Anniversary!
Tom and EM
Tom and the CCC enjoy a little rest before our ferry ride home.
Butterfly sign
Did you think, even for a second, that there would not be cocktails? Butterfly is a short walk from Pier 33 with good food and a complete cocktail menu. “Happy Hour” and “Wine Bar” are four of the most reassuring words in the English language.
Butterfly view
The view from Butterfly. An ideal place to ponder the significance of Weiwei’s show and the questions, “what can I do? How can I make a difference?”.
butterfly cocktails
The moment you have all been waiting for: A photo of our drinks! Can you guess who the Bloody Mary belongs to?

Don’t miss @Large!  It’s moving, evocative, and a relevant reflection of our times.












5 thoughts on “Alcatraz @Large!

      1. When I visited SF I didn’t have time to visit Alcatraz. So your pictures made me travel 😀
        Looking forward to reading your posts!

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