SAN FRANCISCO— An exhibition by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has transformed the former island prison of Alcatraz into a tribute to the world’s political prisoners, some famous and some forgotten.
Called “@ large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz,” the installation opens Saturday at the former maximum-security prison in the San Francisco Bay.
Ai , whose past work has included a piece mourning children killed in shoddily built schools in China’s 2008 earthquake, directed the installation of the Alcatraz exhibition while under house arrest in China for what supporters say are trumped-up tax charges.
The lead work, “Trace,” uses 1.2 million toy Lego bricks to form the portraits of 176 political prisoners and political exiles, from Nelson Mandela to American whistle-blower Edward Snowden, as well as others largely unknown to the outside world.
“The entire exhibition is a conversation around freedom of expression and human rights, and what is the concept of freedom,” Cheryl Haines, the project’s curator, told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Ninety volunteers in San Francisco assembled the Lego portraits, using patterns and 2,300 pages of instructions readied by Ai and crews working with him in Beijing.
Haines helped raise $3.6 million to pay for the exhibition and coordinated with partners including the National Park Service, which runs Alcatraz. Alcatraz closed in 1963 as a federal prison and now draws 1.6 million visitors a year as a cultural, historical and wildlife site.
Ai, whose art has helped make him one of China’s best-known dissidents internationally, himself spent nearly three months in prison in China in 2011.
“They detained me for 81 days, but they never killed me. They clearly told me: ‘If we were in the Cultural Revolution, you would have been killed 100 times,’ ” Ai wrote of that experience.
The exhibition is free.