First Look: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

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For “Trace,” Legos form 175 portraits depicting prisoners of conscience from around the world. The portraits were assembled in part by more than 100 Bay Area volunteers using over 1 million Lego bricks; Photo by Adam Grossberg/KQED

First Look: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

First Look: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

A detail from “Trace” shows a portrait of Edward Snowden, the former N.S.A contractor who stole secret documents relating to U.S. government spying. Snowden now lives as an exile in Russia. Photo, Adam Grossberg for KQED.
A detail from “Trace” shows a portrait of Edward Snowden, the former N.S.A contractor who stole secret documents relating to U.S. government spying. Snowden now lives as an exile in Russia; Photo by Adam Grossberg/KQED
The monumental “Refraction,” modeled on a bird’s wing, is mounted in the New Industries building, where prisoners worked. Photo, Jan Stürmann
The monumental “Refraction,” modeled on a bird’s wing, is mounted in the New Industries building, where prisoners worked; Photo by Jan Stürmann
A detail from “Refraction” shows the reflective panels and heating pots of the Tibetan solar cookers used in the work’s construction. Photo, Jan Stürmann
A detail from “Refraction” shows the reflective panels and heating pots of the Tibetan solar cookers used in the work’s construction; Photo by Jan Stürmann
Curator of “@Large” Cheryl Haines worked closely with Ai Weiwei, traveling back and forth to Beijing with maps and photos of Alcatraz that helped the artist visualize the space. Here she consults on designs with Ai in his Beijing studio.  Photo, Jan Stürmann
Curator of “@Large” Cheryl Haines worked closely with Ai Weiwei, traveling back and forth to Beijing with maps and photos of Alcatraz that helped the artist visualize the space. Here she consults on designs with Ai in his Beijing studio; Photo by Jan Stürmann

Next week, organizers will unveil an unusual public art exhibit on Alcatraz. The installation is expected to draw a record number of visitors to the island during a seven-month run, but the international art-star behind it won’t be attending.

That's because Chinese dissident-artist Ai Weiwei is unable to leave the country, his passport confiscated by authorities following an 81-day detainment for alleged tax evasion.

Ai Weiwei is perhaps best known for his work on the elaborate Birds Nest stadium created for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but his work – often conceptual in nature and political in theme – spans all media, from video to woodworking (for a crash-course on his career, see this “Ai Weiwei Top Ten”).

The seven major new sculptural and mixed-media works now being installed in the former military fortress and penitentiary employ everything from Legos to teapots and bamboo to explore themes of freedom and confinement. Installation by a team of Ai’s assistants and local installers and volunteers has been a dizzyingly complex process. In addition to the fact that the artist can’t leave China, Alcatraz is both a bird sanctuary and a national historic site. That means, for example, that none of the walls can be disturbed.

“It’s actually the opposite of a museum,” said Greg Moore, head of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. “The lack of water on-site, the generated electrical power, no climate control -- but it will be an amazing museum for this art work.”

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To check on the progress of this unusual artwork, KQED visited the island recently. The photos here are a first-look at the exclusive coverage KQED will unveil in the coming weeks.