Visitors can only view “Refraction,” the metal sculpture in the shape of a wing, from the small windows, many with broken glass, of the “lower gun walk.” This narrow space was once patrolled by armed guards monitoring the prisoners below as they worked. The piece is made of reused industrial solar panels that were used for cooking in the most remote parts of Tibet.
The show continues uphill at the Administration Building. In Cellblock A, Ai has installed solitary metal stools in the row of prison cells. In “Stay Tuned,” the visitor is invited inside the cell where an audio installation of words, poetry, or songs play. These are the voices of many whose lives have been defined by their role in fighting oppression, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Pussy Riot, and the Robben Island Singers.
In what are perhaps the most disturbing spaces, the two isolation cells of the psychiatric wing, Ai inserted the sounds of Tibetan and Hopi chants. Sharing a heavy concrete parti wall, the installations provide a ready commentary on the role of the Chinese and U.S. government in the subjugation and deprivation of human rights.
On the same floor, in the bathroom of the hospital wing, the artist has filled the bath, sink, and tub with white porcelain flowers. The colorless bouquets fill each fixture with beautiful pieces that evoke traditional Chinese pottery, and juxtapose the emptiness and ruin-like quality of the room with a sense of beauty and potential. As visitors depart the exhibition through the Dining Hall at “Yours Truly,” they come across a wooden rack with postcards depicting flowers and birds. These images are all derived from nations where prisoners are being held. Visitors are invited to write a message on the preaddressed postcards, which will be mailed to the prisoners by the exhibitors.
The federal penitentiary was a highly systemized and organized space. The choreography of the installation follows this narrative of a profoundly organized institutional life at Alcatraz Island. Here is perhaps the brilliance of the curator in pairing Ai Weiwei with the site. The show re-engages the spaces within to evoke a radical questioning of the political organization of space.
Each year, over 1.6 million people visit Alcatraz Island. The public’s curiosity about the island and the show’s access to areas not normally open succeeds in providing an unimaginably expanded audience. Willing participants or not, they are presented with a unique opportunity to see more of the island than most visitors, and to experience it through the lyrical and compassionate perspective of Ai Weiwei.