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Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz

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How does a provocative Chinese artist banned from traveling outside his home country mount a site-specific exhibition on a fortified island in the San Francisco Bay, 6,000 miles away from his studio in Beijing? The logistics are only slightly simpler than escaping from the penitentiary that, until 1963, held America’s most notorious federal criminals.

Ai Weiwei—who in 2011 was detained for 81 days on charges of tax evasion by a Chinese government he has routinely criticized in his art—will show new work in “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” in September on Alcatraz Island. The artist is coordinating from Beijing with San Francisco art foundation For-Site, which partnered with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy for the project. Cheryl Haines, For-Site founder and executive director, pitched the idea to the artist shortly after his incarceration. Haines has since hand-delivered archival materials—maps, photos, videos—to Beijing to help Ai conceptualize the site.

The work—sculpture, sound and multimedia pieces that explore the idea of creative expression as a tool of defiance—will be spread across the 22-acre island. One clue to what the installation might look like: Haines brought the 1962 film Birdman of Alcatraz to Ai shortly before the exhibition was announced last December. He said at the time, “When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.” “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” runs September 27, 2014, through April 26, 2015; for-site.org.

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