Ai Weiwei’s At Large Comes To Alcatraz, and to Bay Area Classrooms

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Trace by Ai Weiwei

Vibrant dragon kites and more than a million Lego bricks are some of the whimsical childhood pleasures that, in the hands of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, are the raw materials for depicting the dangers of repressive state power.

Organizers of Ai’s ambitious new exhibition on Alcatraz Island, @Large, want young people across the Bay Area to to see these objects re-contextualized in service of that narrative.

The idea for @Large, which opens to the public this weekend, was dreamed up by Cheryl Haines of San Francisco’s For-Site Foundation. The organization works to arrest the notion that art happens in hushed, white-walled galleries, instead bringing large-scale shows to public spaces like Alcatraz.

Ai, a political activist who’s under house arrest in China, has never seen the former federal penitentiary that will be his canvas for the next seven months. Haines made six trips to China to bring him photos and videos of Alcatraz, and a combination of paid and volunteer staff installed the stunning art. It includes a piece called “With Wind,” in which stylized kites represent “personal freedom,” even as their designs reference countries known for abhorrent human rights abuses. In another stirring piece, “Trace,” the faces of political prisoners and activists in exile are rendered by 1.2 million Lego bricks pressed into place on the stark cement floor.

Greg Moore, President of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (a partner in @Large) says that student field trips will be an important way to get young people to engage with the exhibition. “In addition, we have worked to help develop curriculum based materials for school kids to take advantage of the story of alcatraz and this exhibit to explore in their own way the themes of  freedom of expression, creativity, confinement, and what those themes mean in history —  what they mean in today’s world and how we project them into the future.”

The exhibition, which utilizes parts of the island previously unavailable to the public, will be open until April of 2015.

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