Once an infamous prison, Alcatraz is now a national park that attracts 1.5 million visitors each year - and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei just teamed up with the FOR-SITE Foundation to unveil a series of 7 provocative installations that engage with the island's history while exploring the issues of human rights and freedom of expression. "Trace" is one of the most spectacular - Ai Weiwei used 1.2 million LEGO bricks to create portraits of 176 prisoners of conscience and exiles. Today we took a firsthand look at this amazing installation before it officially opens this weekend - check out our photos after the jump!
Ai Weiwei is no stranger to imprisonment – the artist is a fierce critic of the Chinese government, and in the past he has been secretly detained for 81 days, beaten by Chinese police placed under house arrest, and his passport was seized – he still can’t leave China to this day. As a result, Ai Weiwei worked with the FOR-SITE Foundation from his Beijing studio to plan @Large.
The artist has never set foot on Alcatraz, so he enlisted a team of over 80 San Francisco volunteers to help assemble the 176 portraits. A blueprint for each portrait was created digitally and then split into four or more parts so that volunteers could work on them without revealing the final images ahead of the show.
In some ways this process mirrors the bricks’ intended purpose – LEGOs are manufactured abroad, shipped great distances, and then assembled according to instructions, brick by brick. However in this case the end product isn’t a spaceship or a castle – but a moving tribute to those who fought for their ideals at the cost of their freedom.
The figures depicted hail from all around the world – their ranks include Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Edward Snowden, Tibetan singer Lolo and Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama. The vast LEGO canvas is split into five blocks, and visitors can walk amidst the rows as if passing through a cemetery.
Speaking about his use of LEGO bricks, Ai Weiwei told The New York Times: “They are very simple and straightforward, but can also be easily destroyed and taken apart, ready to be remade and reimagined . . . I like the idea of using this language and material as an expression of human nature and the hand of creation.”
Photos by Mike Chino for Inhabitat