An enormous dragon has roosted in the rafters of San Francisco's decaying Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary - and this past weekend it broke free for the opening of @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Ai Weiwei teamed up with traditional Chinese craftsmen to create the jaw-dropping paper dragon, which winds its way throughout the New Industries Building at the fabled former prison. Its colorful scales are interspersed with symbols from over 30 countries with histories of restricting civil liberties and quotes from prisoners of conscience that convey a powerful message about personal freedom and the struggle for human rights
Ai Weiwei’s With Wind installation greets visitors with a colorful explosion of paper forms that take flight within the former prison. The dragon is a symbol of power and freedom, however its paper construction is delicate. Its constrained position creates tension between the mythical and the real; the concept of freedom and the cold, hard walls that contain it. The vibrant dragon is joined by smaller kites representing flowers and birds – symbols of freedom and life that reflect the gardens outside and the site’s role as a flourishing avian habitat.
Ai Weiwei has a history of working with skilled Chinese craftsmen to create his large-scale artworks. Kite making is a dying craft in China, so Ai Weiwei supported the industry by working with artisans who handmade the kites using silk, paper, and bamboo. The artist teamed up with the FOR-SITE Foundation to install the installation in the New Industries building on Alcatraz. The building housed “privileged” prisoners who were offered the opportunity to work as a reward for good behavior. Work offered an escape from boredom and isolation, and it could earn prisoners a shorter sentence – hence the building’s connection with freedom and personal expression.
Photos by Mike Chino for Inhabitat