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

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Geographies of Detention in Riverside

This is an exhibition at the California Museum of Photographyin Riverside CA on the theme of incarceration, linking the “detention center” at Guantanamo with the 33 prisons spread across the remote regions of California.  A featured element of the show is the “Prisonation” series of painting by Sandow Birk. He did an oil painting of each prison in the Romantic landscape style of Bierstadt, Church and others.  At first glance we see an idyllic world of nature.  On second glance we see its conversion to a space of incarceration. What pioneers traversed, prisoners don’t. They are out of sight, hidden behind the prison walls and surrounding landscape.  Most of the paintings appear inside 19C frames that Birk found at flea markets and they are 24 – 36″ across, give or take, but a very large painting of San Quentin is on the second floor of the de Young museum in San Francisco where most visitors pass it by as just another example of idyllic landscapes, like so many of the other paintings with which it shares the floor but which are detonated from the inside as Birk undercuts the enchantment with the wary eye of one who sees a modern truth beneath a old delusion.

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The accompanying flyer annouces their panel discussion on the show and presents one of the most haunting paintings in the series: Pelican Bay.  The blue tones and ghostly absences give it a deeply disturbing edge.  I’ve had to put it in my study, behind my desk where I can see it readily but not constantly.  it is far too strong for the living room in its phantasmatic portrayal of incarceration behind watch towers, chain link fence, water sprinklers and the verdant world of green.