Recently I attended the massive installation “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” by dissident Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei. It takes months of planning to get a ticket and is profoundly worth the wait and effort.

Created for and set in the crumbling and horrifying remains of the prison on Alcatraz Island, the installation is divided into seven parts, each with its own distinct and often visually beautiful perspective on imprisonment, domination, freedom, isolation, and the bleak endlessness of incarceration.

A recurring technique in many of Ai’s pieces is the use of massive quantities of something, often a hand-created something in honor of his reverence for craft. An oft-cited fact about one of the pieces in this installation, “Trace,” is the use of 1.4 million Lego pieces. But the installation is powerful for reasons that are greatly beyond this notable quantity.

Ai Weiwei "Trace"

“Trace” is an installation depicting portraits of 176 individuals incarcerated for their beliefs, most of them still held as of this past June. Ai refers to them as heroes, though many people on my tour questioned certain individuals such as Edward Snowden being called a hero. I found the effect of the Lego portraits to be profound. It is so very easy to read about dissidents, to see them as far off from one’s everyday life, to know of them in a small, faraway way. The first impression of these dozens of portraits is one of pixilation, difficult to identify. And then. Then your eyes begin to see them and take in the enormity of their sheer numbers. The millions of pieces begin to make sense in relationship to the millions of individuals around the world whose freedom is compromised.

Ai Weiwei "Trace" Nelson Mandela

Just as we began to leave “Trace” we decided to take a few photographs with our phones and discovered that viewed through a phone’s camera, the portraits became instantly clear, the blurriness of pixilation gone, as if to reflect on how information about today’s dissidents is instantly and clearly communicated thanks to technology. It changed the entire experience, added a deeper level of meaning.


“Blossom” takes place in the prison hospital, often a place of residence for the mentally ill, a place of desolation. Here, Ai has filled the old discolored sinks, toilets, and bathtubs with tiny, precious white porcelain flowers. The decrepit containers are filled to overflowing with what at first glance could be Styrofoam packing peanuts, but on closer inspection are each beautiful, detailed blooms. Who knows how many blossoms there are, who knows how many cries took place in this place of horror and in others around the world? What a contrast between these horrible porcelain fixtures and these minute pieces of art — a contrast of purpose, a reminder that those imprisoned for their thoughts never see or receive flowers of any sort. There was no beauty here.

Ai Weiwei, "Blossom" (photo: Jan Stürmann via FOR-SITE Foundation)

Ai Weiwei, “Blossom” (photo: Jan Stürmann via FOR-SITE Foundation)

It is often noted that art has the power to reveal and re-color reality. In the case of @Large, Ai does even more than that. He explores, exposes and ultimately fills us with the enormity of the commitment of individuals for their beliefs. Extraordinary.