For the art world—critics, scholars, and curators alike—Ai Weiwei is a visionary, marrying aesthetic awe with social poignancy, as his activist works comment on the circumstances of modern day China. Works such as Sunflower Seeds, installed in the Tate Modern’s iconic Turbine Hall in 2010, impress in their meticulous craftsmanship, sheer scale and conspicuous sociopolitical metaphor. Ai’s prodigious artistic ability led to his appointment as consultant for the construction of the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ “Bird’s Nest” Stadium.
For the tastes of those more pedestrian, Ai’s appeal lies in his uniquely fashionable status as dissident and enemy of state. His works not only emulate the Chinese experience but also harshly critique or caricaturize it. For his retrospective show So Sorry, Ai created the installation Rememberance. The work, composed of colorful backpacks, memorialized the countless children whom perished in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to shoddy government oversight for the construction of schools.
Eventually, works like this led to his arrest by the Chinese government. Under allegations of “economic crimes,” Ai was held for 81 days in 2011 and subsequently grounded from international travel. As a result, on social media tweeting at @AiWeiWei and at remotely-organized international exhibitions, art audiences revel in the forbidden glamour of communing with a suppressed revolutionary. Western audiences especially have popularized Ai Weiwei for his political inclinations—having espoused democracy and free speech and demonized communism.
In this reason for Ai’s celebrity, it can often be easy to attribute the success of his works simply to their scathing political critique. However, a purely activist lens in viewing Ai’s art would over-determine the importance of its social realities, deeming non-Western art not “art for art’s sake,” but rather something pre-Modern.
However, Ai manages to circumvent the challenges posed by his own celebrity in @Large in its very implementation on Alcatraz Island. @Large becomes subversively small, going undercover and hiding beneath the popularity of the tourist attraction.
In his book, What is Contemporary Art, art theorist Terry Smith characterizes present-day museums as “art theme parks,” places that maximize popularity in order to “[finance] its own realization” as an art space. Ai manages to avoid the trap of milking his celebrity status for the sake of foot traffic or needing to create accessible, uncontroversial art that supports the continued realization of the art space. He achieves this by embedding the art space into a destination that is popular in itself—Alcatraz Island, welcoming over 1.3 million visitors per year.
Once having reached Alcatraz by boat, I was greeted by an apple-cheeked tour guide’s introduction to the island, in which @Large is but a mere footnote. Ai’s presence is dwarfed by that of Alcatraz, and his work—which, for once, is not preceded by his celebrity and its political framework—is thereby able to enact its political message through the experience of the art itself. By hiding beneath the draw of Alcatraz Island, Ai’s art is able to be recognized for its formal qualities, rather than solely its political context, as the art audience has not been attracted by his dissident status. This is not to say that Ai’s art is apolitical, however. The political message of each piece is articulated by a complexly structured formality, as it draws on the works’ physical context—of the site itself and the institutional framework of the exhibition space.
Ai’s exhibition amplifies the experience of the exhibition’s political implications of democracy and freedom by simulating imprisonment. Blossom transforms sinks, toilets and tubs into bouquets of porcelain flowers. Beyond the art objects’ references to the traditional Chinese art of porcelain and the social function of floral offerings, Blossom’s most political function lies in its immediate context.
Of all of the works in @Large, Blossom is the most quiet and unassuming. Only when the viewer approaches a toilet bowl does it become clear that it is no longer a historical remnant, but transformed into art. Children, especially unknowing and curious, reach out to Blossom, only to be firmly warned by the watchful docent not to touch it. Its very status as “art” is a shock, and the docents become prison guards, enforcing a no-contact visitor policy, as Alcatraz acts as both prison and exhibition space. The form of Blossom, including both the object itself and its immediate context, not only engenders a sympathy with the incarcerated, but also a solidarity.
Stay Tuned provides an activistic impetus as a response to this imprisonment. Attendees are clued into the presence of the piece Stay Tuned due to the exhibition text. Block A’s entire row of cells are open—completely barren, except for a single steel footstool—piquing curiosity, as most of the cells in the rest of the penitentiary are closed. The participant enters the cell, only to realize that the art lies in one’s own imprisonment, having been systematically tricked into entering. The lone stool beckons the participant to “stay” and accept the incarceration. However, this “staying” takes on an empowering character, as each cell features a different recording of revolutionary poetry or music made by opponents of authoritarian governments during incarceration. The participant is encouraged to both flourish creatively and rebel against the institutions the prison represents, just as Ai himself had been inspired.
Meant as a means of substantive action, Yours Truly consists of large shelves of postcards addressed to current political prisoners, and the audience is prompted to send them messages. If there were a weak point to @Large, it would be found in this piece, whose form engages with both Ai’s celebrity and the institution of popular art as a whole, undermining the political message.
It is this very “popularity” that is emphasized in the work, rather than ideology. Yours Truly is distastefully dominated by social media, as attendees are encouraged by the exhibition text to post photos of their postcards with the hashtag, #AiWeiWeiAlcatraz. This communication then becomes mediated by social media’s mechanisms of approval, “favorites” and “retweets” alike. The audience is prompted to engineer the message for broad appeal and, in directing these messages towards the social media masses, the original recipient of the message is forgotten. Furthermore, Ai’s own celebrity overshadows the political cause in its very naming. The hashtag purports social action but fixates on the creator of the initiative rather than its beneficiaries.
Fulfilling Smith’s warnings of uncontroversial art, Yours Truly is more “feel good” than it is confrontational. More foreign political prisoners are featured than American ones. The issues seem foreign and distant, rather than directly threatening of the viewers’ livelihoods. Although the idea of Yours Truly has the capacity for political action, viewers’ engagement with the work is not, as it purports, activated by a confrontation with shocking human rights violations. Rather, viewers act on their own selfish desires for popularity. The potential for ideological revolution is lost.
However, this is not to say that Ai is successful overall in the purpose of @Large, relying deeply on form to convey political messages instead of a pre-determined activist lens associated with his celebrity.
Trace, made of thousands of Lego bricks, references a history of form by re-appropriating the Pop Art aesthetic, invoking Warhol’s silkscreen prints in their brightly colored, highly stylized headshot format. However, by featuring political prisoners instead of celebrities, Trace equates the Warholian utopia of “everybody being a machine” with that of communist China. Trace breaks with the machine-produced, grid patterns of Warhol through its painstaking construction and heterogeneous arrangement of images. In this, Trace emphasizes the human element, subverting the Pop Art “machine.”
With Wind too makes reference to the artistic canon. The work inserts dissident voices into the dominant Chinese narrative by inscribing quotes from the likes of Edward Snowden onto traditional Chinese dragon kites. The piece acts as a call-to-arms, rallying for the encroachment of dissident ideology upon hegemonic mechanisms.
Refraction empowers the marginalized using the materiality of its physical context. It consists not only of a bird wing sculpture, but also of its conditions of imprisonment by barred windows. The viewing experience thus becomes reminiscent of walking through a cell block. However, its composition of solar panels and industrial materials suggest that the work is simply dormant, slowly charging up for its eventual transcendent flight once released from these binds. Illumination, in a similar fashion, uses the resonant spaces of Alcatraz’s isolation chambers to highlight the voices of those censored. The spaces amplify songs of Tibetan monks and chants of the Hopi tribe, and the surrounding echoes suggest a mass presence—marginalized communities overcoming their voicelessness through strength in numbers.
To be “at large” is to be free or unconfined. The exhibition’s very name, on a very basic level, speaks to Ai’s spiritual freedom found in his continuing artistic output, despite his literal confinement within national lines. Ai does not need to be itinerant to continue to be an artist, instead able to organize shows remotely. However, in line with Ai’s decision to stage the show at a tourist attraction, @Large seems to declare its freedom from Ai himself. Once unfettered by the international art star’s highly politicized reputation, we can assess his work for its merits—for how the work, through its very form, is able to achieve the activistic capabilities that the artist intends.
@Large features an array of powerful works, each its own call-to-arms. In the age of being “famous for being famous,” from pop culture to the art world and Kim Kardashian to Damien Hirst, Ai Weiwei proves himself an artist deserving of his fame.
@Large will continue to be on view daily through April 26th, 2015. Tickets are available at http://www.alcatrazcruises.com up to three months in advance.