Been to Alcatraz lately? It has been more than ten years since we visited and toured the island even through it is almost right outside of our back door and we see it daily from our windows. Although we certainly enjoyed our initial tour, we didn’t really feel a need to return. That was before Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei designed a site-specific exhibit, @Large, that highlighted the plight of people who are imprisoned for their beliefs. Since we saw and loved a Spring 2014 exhibit of the artist’s work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, we were anxious to see what he designed for Alcatraz.
After a lovely cruise to the island, we walked the island, toured the prison, learned its history and of course, spent time with the art.
Ai Weiwei’s @LARGE
The @LARGE exhibit consisted of seven works spread across different locations in two buildings—the Cellblock and the New Industries Building. We found the four works in the Cell House to be somewhat less inspiring than we had hoped.
- “Stay Tuned”, recorded music, poetry and speeches by people in multiple countries who have been detained for their beliefs. Each is played in a different cell in A Block. Interesting, but it would require hours sitting in multiple cells to fully capture the experience.
- “Illumination” consists of chants of two repressed groups, Tibetans and Native Americans, in the context of the penitentiary’s psychiatric ward.
- “Blossom” inexplicably (at least to us) consists of bunches of white porcelain bouquets “planted” in sinks and toilets in the hospital war.
- “Yours Truly“ is a series of postcards, each addressed to a current prisoner, on which visitors are encouraged to write messages and send the cards to the prisoner to demonstrate that they are not forgotten.
The larger scale, and in our view more interesting, works are in the New Industry Building, in which prisoners worked to produce clothes, shoes and other goods. It has three exhibits.
- “With Wind”, a huge Chinese dragon kite, features national icons (such as birds and plants) of countries that Ai sees as violating human rights;
- “Trace” an impressive and thought-provoking construction consisting of thousands of LEGO blocks that represent images of faces of 175 people who have been imprisoned for their beliefs.
- “Refraction” a giant construction of birds wing (an image of freedom) made of Tibetan (a repressed ethnic population) solar cookers.
Although we felt the works in the New Industries building to be much more interesting and symbolically accessible than those in the cell blocks, we did come away less impressed and moved than from the Brooklyn Museum exhibits.
This, however, does not mean you shouldn’t visit the exhibit. After all, there is much more to see at Alcatraz. And if you haven’t been there in a while, this provides a great excuse to return and take advantage of the island’s other opportunities.
Reacquainting Ourselves with the Prison
In our case, this entailed revisiting the island’s displays, retaking the audio tour of the cellblocks and for the first time, participating in a ranger-led walking tour. We found these experiences to be even more interesting and rewarding than the Ai exhibition—the entire reason we decided to revisit the island.
After an informative introductory film, we briefly visited the exhibits which told the story of the evolution of the federal penal system and its objectives, the history of Alcatraz, from its initial days as a fort, the building, operation and closure of the prison, the Native American occupation and its current role as a National Park.
Then onto the audio tours of the cell blocks, which portrays day-to-day life in the prison along with the privileges (books, mail, outdoor time, chances to work in various prison jobs, etc.) which inmates could earn with good behavior. It points out the cells of and discusses the history of particularly notorious inmates, shows some that were furnished with prisoner items and one with a replica of a paper mache head (with hair from the prison barber shop) used to deceive guards during the prison’s most famous escape (see below).
It tours and explains activities that took place in some of the more important common areas, including the library, the gun gallery (which was once taken over by prisoners and resulting in a U.S. Marine siege), the administration room and especially the dining room, which was the most dangerous spot in the entire prison (hundreds of inmates armed with forks and knives).
Then to the feared “D Block” where troublesome inmates had to endure weeks of solitary confinement and in some cases, sensory deprivation in dark, damp cells. And finally to the prison hospital, with some of its original furnishings (including beds, doctor instruments and an early X-ray machine) and the “Bug Rooms” in which mentally unstable inmates were held for observation. And of course, to the psychiatric ward cell of psychopath killer Robert Stroud (nick-named “Birdman” for his work with birds in his former prison, Leavenworth, albeit not while he was at Alcatraz).
Although we had been through all this before, it was still very interesting.
Finally, we did something we had not previously done on the island—participate in a ranger-led guided walking tour. Our tour took us around to the sites and provided detailed description of some of the 14 attempted escapes from an island that had been thought to be escape-proof.
These ranged from a simplistic and fatal effort of one inmate to scale a fence in broad day, in direct sight of four guards (one of whom shot him after he ignored two warning shots), to the elaborate 1962 plot in which four inmates spent months using spoon handles to dig through the concrete around their cell’s air ducts, studied the timing of the tides, stole raincoats from the laundry to make floatation devices and took hair from the barbershop to mount on paper mache heads. When the agreed upon night arrived, three of the men (the fourth was unable to fit through the hole) waited till dark, set dummies in their beds to fool guards, exited their cells and climbed up the pipes to the roof and made their way into the water.
Although this is the last thing known with certainty, a car was stolen in Sausalito that same night and months later, the warden received a postcards with signatures that matched records of the men, from Seattle. Did they really escape? Was the card really from them? Nobody really knows. They do, however, remain on wanted lists and will continue to be listed as wanted until 2061—99 years after the date of the escape.
Other inmates, however, are confirmed to have escaped the island, if not captivity. One from a 1950s’ attempt was captured clinging to a rock just off Alcatraz and his partner was found drown in the bay. Then, in 1962, another, in the last attempt before the prison was closed in 1963, managed to reach shore just before being washed out to sea beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. By that time, however, his clothes had been ripped off and he passed out naked, on the shore. He was found, taken to a hospital, and once his identity was confirmed, returned to Alcatraz.
A fascinating tour. And, as a side benefit, we saw various views from the island’s and many of the lovely plots that have been planted with ice plants and other vegetation, much of which blooms into vivid colors in the spring.
Although the Ai exhibit was somewhat disappointing after his Brooklyn exhibition, it was certainly worth seeing. The return to the prison, and especially the escape tour, were icing atop Ai’s artistic protest cake.