Ai Wei Wei: Field Trip to Alcatraz

Recently, our Florabella team took a field trip to see the Ai Wei Wei exhibit on Alcatraz Island. We packed up a few goodies from the Ferry Building (including some of our favorite Cowgirl Creamery cheese!) and headed across the water and to see what was truly a thought-provoking and awe-inspiring installation.

It was a true San Francisco day thick with fog, setting the scene perfectly for a trip to the infamous prison. Upon arrival, it was explained to us that there were several portions to the exhibit, each pertaining in some aspect to the overall theme of captivity and activism. As we wandered through what used to be prison cells and guard’s offices, each installation was more tremendous than the last.

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A gorgeously colorful and fearsome dragon greeted us at the door of the prison guard rooms, and as we walked along his snaking body we realized there were quotes from various activists throughout history – Martin Luther King Jr., Edward Snowden, even Ai Wei Wei himself. Colorful kites in the shape of what looked like abstract birds framed the room. The rainbow colors, the dragon reminiscent of Chinese celebrations, and the birds symbolic of freedom, proved a drastic contrast to the barred prison windows and drab concrete walls.

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On the floor of the next exhibit, Legos stretched across the expanse of the floor, forming portraits of different activists, some of whom are still imprisoned by their respective countries, others who have since been released. Ai Wei Wei himself was not allowed to leave China even to help install his exhibit here at Alcatraz! His art tries to embody activists like himself and illustrate the injustice inflicted upon them by their governments for speaking their mind. By juxtaposing such a heavy subject with such light-hearted mediums, like Legos and colorful kites, Ai Wei Wei plays with his themes of liberty and freedom of speech, captivity and imprisonment.

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There was an enormous steel bird wing created out of Tibetan solar ovens, weighing several tons. One hallway in the prison had a different song or poem recording in each cell – all dubbed rebellious or anarchistic by their home countries. And these came from all over the world – Russia, Sudan, Afghanistan, China. Another hallway led you through the old Alcatraz hospital ward. Among the obsolete machinery in these dirty, crumbling rooms, basins full of pure white china carved to look like flowers were placed under a harsh spotlight.

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Each exhibit, heavy with symbolism, made me think how lucky we are to be free, and how much we take advantage of that simple fact. Ai Wei Wei couldn’t have chose a more fitting locale to install his works, as the ambiance of Alcatraz added immensely to his message. As we go about our daily lives, it’s nice to reflect once in a while on issues bigger than ourselves, and Ai Wei Wei’s art truly made us think. Although this wasn’t a typical Florabella blog post, we wanted to share! Such a fun and interesting field trip with our team, and we wanted to pass along our thoughts and pictures for you to enjoy!

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