Ai Weiwei Fills Alcatraz with 1.2 Million Legos in Major Exhibition

Part of the exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, "Blossom"
Part of the exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, "Blossom"
  • Part of the exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, "Trace"

    Part of the exhibition @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, "Trace"

One of the biggest art exhibitions of the year will not be attended by the artist behind its creation. Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, 57, is under house arrest in Beijing for alleged tax evasion. His massive installation "@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz" opens without him this weekend inside the infamous prison surrounded by San Francisco Bay.

It took 90 people three weeks to assemble part of Ai's secret art project. A cargo of Legos was shipped to the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco where the group put together 1.2 million pieces to form 176 faces of imprisoned political dissidents. This signature piece, called "Trace," was barged over at night to an empty building the size of a football field on Alcatraz.

Seven large-scale installations incorporating sound, sculpture and mixed media will be on view. "Trace" explores themes of freedom of expression and human rights. Another work called "Blossom," comprised of delicate porcelain flowers, makes political references and touches on human frailty. Ceramic bouquets fill the prison hospital ward. 

 The $3.6 million project was organized by the For-Site Foundation and the National Park Service. It will be open daily for seven months, and is free with the regular $30 tour of Alcatraz. The site already draws 1.6 million visitors a year and tours will likely sell-out with the new exhibition. Another 40 guides have been hired to interpret the site-specific art. 

Organizers say Ai created the art as a response to the island's layered legacy as a 19th-century military fortress, a notorious federal penitentiary, a site of Native American heritage and protest, and now one of America's most-visited national parks. The exhibition runs Sept. 27, 2014, to April 26, 2015, on Alcatraz Island.

“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.”
— Ai Weiwei

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