We went to see @large Ai Wei Wei on Columbus weekend. The Blue Angels were flying above as we crossed the Bay Bridge and as we inched our way along the Embarcadero, empty floats from the Italian American parade drove by. And then making our way up to the exhibit on Alcatraz, the first thing we saw was the bright red graffiti, “Home of the Free,” on the water tower. The graffiti is from when Native Americans occupied the island in the 1970s. All of this set the stage for our experience.
We took a night tour, which means there were fewer people and we had a tour guide. She started by explaining that the exhibit is layered and Ai Wei Wei used this site because of it’s historical richness. She also pointed out, that Ai Wei Wei wanted to bring his work to a larger audience, international and from different backgrounds.
Choosing a tourist attraction in San Francisco helped guaranteed that type of audience. For example, our group of about 30, consisted of a couple European families, a Spanishy looking family, a gay couple, a dyed blonde Asian American couple, and children as young as three. There were elderly couples and young hipsters. There was myself and my ambigously-mixed "ethnic" daughter. And there was a single "white" guy too. :) Definitely diverse.
In the first room the sun was setting and the light bounced around a beautiful hand-painted dragon kite (fully functioning, btw) that twisted around the columns. “The dragon symbolizes power in Chinese culture,” our tour guide announced. I thought to myself, “Really? A Dragon? Come on Wei Wei!” It felt cliched, but, it was beautiful. I could tell my daughter appreciated it as I watched her walk around reading statements on the kite.
The next room was portraits of political thought prisoners made from legos. I think I only recognized one name, but wasn’t sure because the lettering was hard to read. When I got up to view them from the second floor, where the gunmen use to keep watch of the prisoners of Alcatraz, I imagined the faces from the exhibit, as if they were in that hall sitting around tables discussing their ideas.
There’s more parts of the exhibit but, these two rooms are the major highlights. To be honest I thought the exhibit was a bit thin. I thought I would be angrier when I left, since it is a statement on political censorship. These are people who went to prison because of what they believed in, their thoughts alone. How many of us could be that brave?
But as I sat with my daughter, eating a sandwich, watching San Francisco twinkle in the night, I felt thankful. I was happy I could see an installation from a respected international artist in an affordable and accessible setting. Grateful, I could take my 11-year-old daughter to a night tour and it was safe. Happy we weren't intimidated for participating. We were free to talk about the Native American parents, who were jailed on the island, because they refused to send their children to boarding school. Around us, families tucked into each others arms to stay warm. And I felt grateful that I was on a former prison island, but free. So although it wasn’t as powerful as I expected, it certainly met it’s purpose.