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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.

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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.

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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.

ai weiwei, @large, alcatraz, traces, san francisco, ai weiwei alcatraz, lego, green design, politics, political art, political prisoners, exiles, green art, green design, sustainable design, alcatraz prison, lego art, recycled materials, repurposed materials, prisoners of conscience

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.”

+ @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

+ Ai Weiwei

+ Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

Photos by Mike Chino for Inhabitat