Art, History, and a Boat Trip!


Take a trip to Alcatraz and see @Large: Ai Weiwei

With Wind

It’s a strange sight to behold an art installation that the artist will likely never see himself. Ai Weiwei’s site-specific installations at Alcatraz were conceived from his home in China where he lives under house arrest. @Large: Ai Weiwei opened last fall on the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco and the show is on view through April 26, 2015. The internationally recognized artist is especially known for his Bird’s Nest Stadium in China for the 2008 Olympic games.

There are several trips to the island each day. We suggest getting tickets ahead of time on the Alcatraz website. To get a good seat on the top of the boat for the best views arrive early! (There are also special night-tour options, but these sell out quickly so book now if you have any desire to go).


Allowing access to areas not available to the public before, Ai’s pieces reveal new perspectives on Alcatraz while raising questions about personal freedom and human rights. Knowing the artist’s life story and work and seeing the artwork in the context of the 19th century military fortress balances political impact with aesthetic grace. It’s a must-see exhibit for all, and kids (who are always fascinated by Alcatraz) can readily access the direct and emotional messages about freedom.

Once off the ferry walk up the hill and enter the New Industries Building and you will run head into a colorful flying Chinese Dragon kite.   In the next room the floor is covered in Lego pieces that when viewed closely are portraits of 176 people that have been imprisoned or exiled.   Upstairs in the hospital ward cells cracked sinks and tubs are filled with white ceramic flowers and there are more areas with special lighting and sound. Another special part of this exhibition is the access to the hospital and psych wards not normally available to tours. If you’ve been to Alcatraz before, this exhibit makes the place more meaningful, and to see the prison through the lens of an artist’s vision is something you will never forget.


How did he do it? This large scale installation was three years in the planning and nine months in the making. Alcatraz already draws 1.6 million visitors annually. “@Large” is on display during off-season for seven months and if it sells out, 6o,ooo additional visitors will visit. A 122-page catalog, and hats and t-shirts add to the revenue of this important show.

The ninety volunteers that worked on assembling the works were made up of architecture students, artists, nurses, museum staff and park volunteers. The works were shipped by barge and installed after the tours ended each day.


One of seven installations “Traces”, portraits depicting people with a story of political imprisonment was made up of 1.2 million Lego pieces accompanied by a 2,300 page instructional manual. Using a childlike medium to depict the faces of political prisoners is a potent for young people – it is a simple way to tell powerful stories.  Here is a link to a page that describes each prisoner depicted.

Ai Weiwei

To learn more about the artist, click here to visit his personal site.

Photos by Jan Stürmann