What is the role of the artist? Picasso said it well:
“Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as a mediation between this strange hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.”
Ai Weiwei has inserted himself (artistically) and his political predicament into the strange, hostile world of one of the most maximum security prisons ever constructed outside of Guantanomo Bay: Alcatraz. He has also inserted the plight of the unjustly imprisoned into the former prison, forcing us to rethink our relationship to the most precious commodity of all: freedom.
Weiwei has executed the powers of artistic mediation into a space where, generally, tourists from all over the world enter into an almost dreamlike, romanticized narrative surrounding the notorious American gangsters and hardened criminals sent to the Rock. Alcatraz is a narrative told through epic tales of extreme forms of isolation and cunning escapist exploits. But there is nothing romantic about imprisonment, especially when it is politically motivated and forced on the innocent or well-intentioned who have been locked away from the world of the living for years or even a lifetime.
And yet, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, organized by San Francisco’s For-Site Foundation, goes well beyond the stories of notorious convicts who populated Alcatraz. It presents instead the stories of political prisoners from all corners of the globe, many of whom have never had their stories told. The site-specific sculptures, installations, and sound works reach out to every one of us: a narrative that speaks to the vulnerability of losing our freedom, whether it be politically, criminally, artistically, or personally motivated.
We have no idea how precious this freedom is until it is taken away, particularly when at the hand of an unjust government as in the case of Ai Weiwei. And while the Chinese artist is forced to remain in Beijing, unable to travel physically outside the capital city, let alone the rest of the world, his artistic voice is distributed far and wide, inserted as a mediational wedge between an often hostile world and our tenuous grip on humanity.
In a time when the artworld luxuriates in the glow of money, when art is so often the stage set for an indulgent playground inhabited by the rich and socially elite, it is reassuring when it is inserted into a volatile space such as Alcatraz where it can mediate the terrors of the world with a message that reminds us who we are, and the values we must hold on to.
If it were up to me, (particularly in my former guise as Secretary of the US Department of Art & Technology), I would commission Ai Weiwei to design a Monument to Freedom of Expression on the National Mall in Washington, DC: in full view of the US Capitol where so many embrace that hostile world bent on imprisoning the human spirit.