December 12, 2014

San Francisco: Alcatraz Island, @LARGE, Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz; things to do

San Francisco 

@LARGE, Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz 
Artist Ai Weiwei is a political prisoner under house arrest in Beijing.  Because he is not permitted to travel outside China, he helped install this extraordinary exhibit from there.  He says, “When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.”   In this case it landed on our windowsill at Alcatraz.  The exhibit is installed in parts of the former prison that have never before been open to visitors.  By demand of the artist, there is no additional charge to see this show.  However, a guided tour is an additional $20 fee and is available only on the first trip of the day at 8:45 a.m.  These reserved tickets are not available through Alcatraz Cruises; reservation information.  The show runs through April 26, 2015. 

These are the exhibit sites:

Building 64, at the landing. 
View an introductory video about the exhibition and also some video works by Ai Weiwei. 

1.  New Industries Building
Inmates who had earned the privilege were permitted to work here for money or to earn time off of their sentence.  

dragon at Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alacatraz in San Francisco

With Wind:  This airy exhibit centers on a traditional Chinese dragon kite made from kites.  The dragon’s face has Twitter-bird eyes and @aiww eyebrows.

overview of Trace Lego work at Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alacatraz in San Francisco

closeup of Edward Snowden portrait in Trace Lego work at Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alacatraz in San Francisco

Trace:  Constructed by volunteers from more than one million LEGO bricks and resembling needlepoint, these portraits depict more than 175 political prisoners from around the world.

closeup of Tan Zuoren portrait in Tace Lego work at Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alacatraz in San Francisco

While here, select one person.  Then look him up in the book provided, read his story, and remember his name for later.  My person was Tan Zuoren.  His biography reads, “Convicted of subversion of state power, Tan is a writer and activist who had published articles online about the repression of the 1987 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protest, and investigated the deaths of thousands of children when their schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.  In 2009 he was sentenced to five years in prison.  He was released in March 2014.”

fuzzy view from Gun Gallery of Tace Lego work at Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alacatraz in San Francisco

Refraction:  A separate entrance leads into the narrow Gun Gallery section, where a large sculpture depicts a bird’s wing in which the feathers represent Tibetan solar cookers.

2.  Cellhouse—A Block
This is the only remaining section of the original military prison constructed in the early 1900s.  The Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, was moved permanently to a cell here because of his disruptive behavior.

Stay Tuned cell at Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alacatraz in San Francisco

Stay Tuned:  This audio installation occurs inside twelve cells.  It uses sound in the form of music, poetry, and spoken words—all from people who have been detained as political prisoners because of their creative expression of their beliefs.

Arya Aramnejad:  This Iranian singer performs “Ali Barkhiz” (“Ali, Rise”).

Pussy Riot:  The Russian feminist punk rock group performs "Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away (Punk Prayer)."

3.  Cellhouse—Hospital
Illumination:  In two psychiatric observation rooms you’ll hear the sound of Tibetan and Native American chanting, drawing connections between China and the U.S.

Blossom at Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alacatraz in San Francisco

Blossom at Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alacatraz in San Francisco

Blossom at Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alacatraz in San Francisco

Blossom:  Porcelain toilets, sinks, and bathtubs hold fragile, beautiful porcelain castings of flowers. 

4.  Cellhouse—Dining Hall

writing table in Yours Truly at Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alacatraz in San Francisco

Yours Truly:  Here you can write a postcard to your selected prisoner.  Look him up in the books to determine which postcard picture you will find his mailing information on, secure a postcard, and write a message with words of hope.

mail bin in Yours Truly at Ai Weiwei exhibit at Alacatraz in San Francisco

When you are done, place it in the mail bin and it will be mailed.  Free WiFi is also available here--a first on Alcatraz--so that you can post your experience to social media.  Use #AiWeiWeiAlcatraz. 

●The free exhibit brochure provides many insights, as does this webpage

●“Ai Weiwei:  Never Sorry” is an informative documentary about the artist and is worth seeing before your visit.

Every wonder why they call it the slammer?

More about Alcatraz.

More things to do in San Francisco

Way more things to do in San Francisco.

More ideas for exploring Northern California. 

images and videos © 2014 Carole Terwilliger Meyers 


  1. What a perfect venue for this installation~

  2. A thought-provoking post that has me reflecting, once again, how fortunate we are to be able to express freely what we believe as well as travel freely. The Chinese dragon kites are glorious!

  3. What a great exhibit! I wish I could make it there to see it.

  4. What a great exhibit. Alcatraz is a perfect setting for it. I would like to see this thought-provoking and beautiful art.

  5. Just yesterday, my friend Kim told me that she was going to this exhibit on Friday. I had never heard of it and I was thrilled to send her your informative post. Great photos!

  6. Interesting post! The artist Ai Weiwei recently had an exhibit in Toronto however the setting of Alcatraz seems ideally suited to delivering his message.

  7. Wow, what a great addition to the Alcatraz visit, which is already powerful. I wish it could be maintained as a permanent exhibit. From my one time visiting Alcatraz, I highly recommend the audio tour. It appears that audio made the special exhibition more powerful, too.
    Thanks for posting this!

  8. I saw some of Weiwei's works in Spain. They really used the space they were in to best effect, and it looks as if the Alcatraz exhibition did the same.

  9. I was at Alcatraz before, a long time ago. I did not know they hold exhibits there now, and one so apropos to the setting! Thanks!

  10. I would love to see this art exhibit in person. How timely-with so many messages. Ai Weiwei has an extraordinarily creative and thought provoking vision!