Is anybody out there?
On a bright, sunny, blustery, typically San Franciscan day last week, I found myself being towed along, not particularly willingly, in the wake of the entire team of enthusiastic Jackrabbits (plus extras) down to the ferry to Alcatraz to finally view the exhibition @Large by Ai Weiwei. Its been on my list for a while, but there has been a lot of ambivalence, too.
As a rule, I am not fond of prisons as recreational destinations. Though it seems to be a global phenomenon. Every place has one, some more macabre than others.
I also have not quite worked out where I stand on the subject of Ai WeiWei, the Chinese dissident artist who holds demigod status in the Art with a capital A –world. I have been following him for some time now and while I have a lot of time for what he has to say (check out his blog here) a lot of it is puzzlingly regional and personal. Undoubtedly there is vision and an ability to penetrate surfaces, but then there is also a tendency to grandstand and there is a rather theatrical ego which can be seen in video (Ai Weiwei Gangnam Style) and print (article from SF Mag).
Is he, in fact, a great artist, or simply a lot of media hype about the right man in the wrong place at the right time, or is that an artist anyway? It’s a slippery question and one that he deliberately plays with.
I believe he has become our Centuries cultural Zen Koan. You know there is something of great value there, but it remains tantalizingly outside of the grasp of the rational everyday mind. That’s the whole point.
Suffice to say, this exhibition would never have made sense anywhere but Alcatraz, and I would never have gone to “The Rock “ for anyone other than Ai Wei Wei.
Plenty has been written about the actual physical presentation of the works, so I am not going to go into it here, but here are a couple of links to some good ones if you wish to go there (KQED Article). I was especially impressed by the very thoughtful analysis by Sophia from Red Clay (Red Clay Blog). But while I was pooching around on the internet reading everyone else's comments I was struck by how little was being said about where it left people in the days and weeks after having seen it. It was almost as if the “tourist” destination thing had rubbed off. The sentiment seemed to be, "been there done that, got the t-shirt, moving on."
But where did the experience go?
How do we feel about the subject of freedom? personal? political?
Are we doing the usual hand waving and just moving on?
I believe the whole purpose of this exercise was to start a conversation that might at some point attain some critical mass. I am with Kenneth Baker where he explores that notion further through his SFGate article.
Coming from a man whose life and sanity has already been threatened by a powerful regime and who has made no bones about sharing that experience verbally, these works were some powerful visual and auditory essays on our shared human frailty and its relationship to power. There was a pragmatism and practicality laced with extreme delicacy and poignancy, it was a study in paradoxical tensions. There was going out and going in, loud, obvious statements and suggestion by absence. I was reminded of watching very young preverbal children at play. They can be heartbreakingly sensitive and shockingly barbaric in quick succession, but they are always honest and to the point. The same can be said for much of what goes on in the world of the “freedom fighter,"... and lets face it, “Trace” (The Lego portion) is a 21st century version of a Lineage tree.
A lineage tree is a powerful thing, ask any religious order, it is the power of conviction and belief magically squared. There are echoes and whispers coming off that Lego on the floor. These are the saints, prophets and preachers of a new church and the spectacle of Alcatraz is the sign of their martyrdom.
The colour and exuberance of the dragon in the empty hall and the hulking wing seen through shattered glass are hymns to the constantly damaged and reborn impulse to freedom. I was left with the opening words of the constitution, like the first warning shot of a battle,....”we hold these truths to be self-evident........”running through my head. It stayed with me all through my trek over the island, along with William Blake's “Songs of Innocence and Experience”and various other precursors of the Social Justice movement.
Ai WeiWei is throwing the weight and power of all of these individuals life's work, from Edward Snowden to Mandela to the Lakota Indians who left their crude signage on the water tower from the 70’s, into the scales against the seemingly insurmountable weight of political power and asking us, his audience, witting or unwittingly, to play Justice. We are witnesses to the drama and to quote the internet, “what has been seen cannot be unseen.”
So ,....all of us who saw it ,......how does it leave you feeling ?