Alcatraz and Ai Weiwei: The Scene of the Crime

You get the idea that this is a bad place right away.

Alcatraz with Angel Island in the background.

Alcatraz with Angel Island in the background.


Discarded, but a black and white reminder of just how stark this place can be.

Discarded, but a black and white reminder of just how stark this place can be.

Set like what should be a jewel in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz, the island, is nothing but rock and Alcatraz, the prison, nothing but misery. The free audio tour, with the voices of former guards and prisoners, recreates what it would be like to an inmate and it’s not a pretty picture. Cells are tiny, places to roam or exercise or read are miniscule to non-existent.

Ai Weiwei has been to jail. In China. For alleged tax-evasion. The two documentaries about him, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, give a vivid sense of his art, politics, humor, decency, integrity and status as a thorn in the side of a near totalitarian government. He can’t leave the country but this exhibit exploits that fact. He has created an installation of multiple works that remind us how international and relentless the pressure on political dissent is. From the colorful dragon that snakes through half of the building where prisoners were allowed to work to the Lego-based images of scores and scores of political prisoners around the world, Weiwei draws us into a world we would rather forget and reminds of just how high a price dissent, protest and militant activism often entails.

The dragon's head wlecomes us to the former prisoners' "work" area.

The dragon’s head wlecomes us to the former prisoners’ “work” area.

A reminder of  the thin line between in and out, free and captive, liberty and oppression.

A reminder of the thin line between in and out, free and captive, liberty and oppression.

The Lego images are of far more people than most of us have heard of; Weiwei has culled them from around the world. The small pieces of interlocking tessera reassemble people whose lives have been torn apart, whose existence has been minimized and whose identities have been demonized. Some are prisoners no longer such as Nelson Mandela, while others, like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden occupy liminal spaces within or beyond prison walls. Weiwei gives them a vivid, fractured presence that we must actively reassemble and integrate in our own minds as we wander in this desolate workspace, a void in the spirit world of life.

One of the large arrays of images in the work space. There are five such arrays in all.

One of the large arrays of images in the work space. There are five such arrays in all.


Chelsea as she might be seen today were she not in prison for helping expose the secret acts of our government's war on civil liberties and privacy in the name of a war that seems to perpetuate the very thing it seeks to eliminate: terrorism.

Chelsea as she might be seen today were she not in prison for helping expose the secret acts of our government’s war on civil liberties and privacy in the name of a war that seems to perpetuate the very thing it seeks to eliminate: terrorism.

Alcatraz: Nowhere To Go

Alcatraz: Nowhere To Go

Advertisements

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Ana Lily Amirpour has gotten rid of the kitschy quality of her earlier music video “Tehrangeles,” and shifted into the somewhat but not entirely campy universe of Jodorovsky, Lynch, Waters and other great explorers of the highly unlikely, extremely unnatural and totally engaging. Bad City, where “a girl” prowls the ink blot streets at night, deciding fates and seeking something she seems unable to name, stands for Tehran and Los Angeles both, it seems, and serves them equally well. No higher authorities, no police, no social justice intrudes on this world of petty crime, addiction, longing and loneliness. No social order of any distinction prevails. The handful of souls not yet consigned to the true underworld pass their days in desperate and predatory relationships that circle around overlapping needs they can act out but not identify. A desolate gully lies strewn with bodies, detritus from our vampire’s forays it would appear, though no one notices and no one cares about these festering souls at all.
Arash attends his needy, whining, drug addled dad, bails him out of money problems but creates his own, only to have the girl resolve them for him, with a bite from the apple, drug dealer Saeed’s adam’s apple, that is. Their paths run parallel for quite a while as she acts like a campier version of the Man with No Nmae or the Pale Rider, meting out an imperfect justice and longing for something never artciulated that becomes embodied in that moment when she and Arash finally encounter each other. An exquisite scene of the two of them, in one long take, holding, hugging, gazing and loving in her apartment as a pop song plays on her turn table (is it a relic or are we in the 1950s?: Arash’s classic and beloved Ford convertible reinforces the puzzle without resolving it). The girl is clearly a doppleganger in some sense, the darkness within one might say, melodramatically, and that sense gains vivid visualization in her mimicking the walk and gestures of those she encounters on the street. It deepens when she and Arash, dressed up as Dracula for a party, first meet, and crystalizes when he realizes, seeing the cat he captured and cared for now in her apartment after the violent death by teeth bite of his father, that she has done what half of him wished for: freedom from the father who no longer is one.
Amirpour clearly has seen a lot of films and is deeply immersed in popular culture; the mix provides the thrill of it all for some yet can also distract others from the tautness of the narrative obsessions and the elegance of their visual expression. What arrives next from Ms. Amirpour can’t be predicted though I strongly suspect it will be more surprise than repetition.