Sound sneak preview: Ai WeiWei Alcatraz exhibition

Here’s a taste from @Large, the exhibition by internationally renowned Chinese artist Ai WeiWei, which will open to the public on Alcatraz Sat/27.

This recording is from Illumination, one of the sound installations, which makes use of the prison hospital – an Alcatraz site not normally open to daytime visitors. 

To hear it, visitors must enter psychiatric observation cells, small tiled chambers with a chilling history: Inmates who had psychotic breaks were held there for observation while in their most acute states.

Step into one of the tiny cells and you are enveloped in sound from a Buddhist ceremony at the Namgyal Monastery, in Dharamsala, India, where monks from Tibetan lineages perform rituals associated with the Dalai Lama.

The musical chanting piped into the observation cell next door is Eagle Dance, a traditional song of the Hopi tribe, recorded in 1964. That has historic significance, too, because Hopi prisoners were held at Alcatraz in 1895 for refusing to send their children to boarding schools set up by the US Government.

The @Large exhibition on Alcatraz Island is the product of a collaboration between the FOR-SITE Foundation, the National Park Service and the Golden Gate Parks Conservancy. The seven sound, sculpture and mixed-media works center on the themes of freedom of expression and the social implications of incarceration.

“The major tenets of this exhibition are the need for basic human rights, freedom of expression, our individual responsibility and the role that we play in helping create a just society,” said FOR-SITE Foundation executive director and @Large curator Cheryl Haines.

“Also, the importance of communication – there’s an interesting parallel in this exhibition about how a prison populace is controlled, and they’re not allowed to communicate with their community, and there are some cases here on Alcatraz, when it was a federal penitentiary, where that was the case. It was a silent prison for a number of years, and some of the works relate to that.”