On Freedom and Imprisonment: Ai Wei-Wei @Large on Alcatraz

Often on a Monday morning, we return to “our work” and leave the events of the weekend behind. This Monday, I choose to remember my weekend. I visited the Ai Wei-Wei @Large exhibit on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. The seven installations explored various themes of freedom and imprisonment – physically, emotionally, and creatively. It opened me to new ways of defining art.

I saw that art is about visibility, and the artist’s choice is what he or she will bring visibility to, through the act of creating something for others to look at. What I notice about Ai Wei-Wei’s works is that he is rarely the one whose hands make his pieces. He commissions other artisans or enlists crews of volunteers to make and assemble his installations. He is the mastermind, the designer, and the mouthpiece for the messages contained in his art.

For @Large, the message was about the reality of imprisonment and the universal human quest for freedom. Just the day before, on Saturday, I had traveled to Oakland to be one of five speakers at an event for women entitled, “Starting Over at Midlife: What Do I Do Now?”. This was a new audience for me, and I was the only non-Black person in the room. Yet I felt instantly connected, once the women began speaking of their life experiences from their hearts. By the time it was my turn to step in front of the room, I felt held and expanded. And I knew what my gift would be to these women. I would give them a direct experience of their own creativity expressed.

After a brief talk, I gave them colored markers and instructions on how to enter into a timed period of free writing and drawing. Then the sharing began. One by one, the women stood up and spoke about what they had discovered in the flow of freedom. New possibilities, surprises, playful ways of breaking the rules, and feelings of inspiration came through each woman. What I loved watching the most was the blossoming in the room, with each woman’s expressions sparking more courage for the next to come forth.

As I walked through Alcatraz, witnessing Ai Wei-Wei’s displays of caged freedom, images of political prisoners around the world (made from Legos), and sounds of artists, musicians, and poets who have been punished for their ideas, I noticed the common struggles expressed by the women on Saturday. Whether we live in a “free” society or not, there is still a human tendency to build our own prisons. We write our own rules, constraining our freedom of thought, movement, expression, or identity.

The gift of being an American is that I have not lived with the true threat of imprisonment or capture based on something I believe or choose to express. The laws of the government are not what constrain me. As I walked through the exhibit and got a sense for what Ai Wei-Wei has dedicated his life to, I also felt a sense of kinship. His father was a poet who, during the Cultural Revolution in China, was sent to the countryside to a labor camp as punishment for his published critiques of the Communist government. At least partly influenced by that experience, Ai Wei-Wei took on as his life mission the task of exposing the human injustices committed by oppressive regimes – especially China’s – around the world.

I remember my grandfather, who took his family of four children – all under the age of 8 – on a boat to Taiwan in 1949, never to return to China until a visit in 1996. He risked everything in order to escape the prospect of being sent to a labor camp, like so many others were. He risked everything to preserve his freedom of thought and expression. My grandfather was a writer, a historian, and also a critic of the Communist Chinese government. I learned only within the last few months that his siblings, as well as my grandmother’s siblings, who remained in China, were punished in various ways for being related to a “defector”.

I often wonder why I have such a passion – and compulsion, really – to experience freedom. To know and follow my heart. To express myself fully and freely, and to explore the outer limits of what is possible for me. Why is it so important for me to “be me” and not settle for what so many others around me seem perfectly content to settle for? Why is it so easy for me to live “on the outside” of conventional ideas of security and social norms?

While my grandfather may have physically escaped what happened in China, and while my mother traveled even farther away by coming to America, I sense that the seed of freedom planted in their hearts – the seed that would not be permitted to grow freely in the soil of China – still seeks to blossom and grow into its full magnificence. It lives in me. It will not be tamed by an Ivy League education or a professional degree that provides the illusion of security and safety. It will not stop where others would be satisfied with simply “shutting up and accepting things as they are”. This seed contains the impulse of life, which is the impulse toward greater freedom and flight.

And now the choice is mine. How do I choose to nurture my seed of life? And where will I allow it to fly?


Here are some photo essays on my walk through the island and the exhibit. First I noticed the walls:

Then the juxtaposition of sky, water, land, birds, and vistas of freedom visible from all angles, yet just out of reach.

The grid pattern kept repeating itself, on exterior windows as well as interior “gun gallery” windows used by guards to fire off warning shots for unwieldy inmates.

The installations gave a powerful perspective on the universal human experience of both freedom and imprisonment, and how the human spirit can never be contained.


2 thoughts on “On Freedom and Imprisonment: Ai Wei-Wei @Large on Alcatraz

  1. I’m too far from my hometown to easily visit this exhibit, but I believe from what I read about it that Ai WeiWei originally assembled the Lego pieces, then shipped the Legos from China, and sent instructions about how to reassemble them. He was able to get the individual Legos past his censors, but I’m sure the assembled pieces wouldn’t have flown 🙂

    I have the same seed as you … it is a very good thing 🙂

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