Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz


Alcatraz is just one of those tourist destinations that I’ve never really felt compelled to visit. It’s right there in the middle of the Bay, so close and yet so far. But the thing that finally pushed me to buy a ferry ticket was hearing about a new art installation that just opened on the island: Ai Weiwei’s @Large exhibit. And I’m glad I did. The thing about this island– in addition to its legendary past as a supposedly inescapable prison– is that it’s hauntingly beautiful. With lovely gardens, chipped paint a vintage-lover dreams of, and those spectacular views of San Francisco, it’s actually very pretty, which only adds layers to its dark past and the bizarre nature of blending imprisonment with tourism.


There’s only one authorized company that offers ferry rides to and from Alcatraz multiple times a day. We boarded from Pier 33.


All visitors disembark from the ferry and are greeted by this welcome speech and orientation. No explanations are given for these mentions of Alcatraz’s past with the Indian All Tribes, who occupied the island for almost a year from 1969-1971 until they were forcibly removed by the US government.

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Beautiful ruins are all over the island. I think this was a former officer’s home.

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Our first look at Ai Weiwei’s @Large installation: A giant dragon head greets you at the door of the former laundry facility where prisoners would have had work assignments. This large dragon is formed by a series of kites expanding the whole room– bright, colorful, and free to fly, were it not trapped indoors. This was easily the most iconic and impactful of all the installations.


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In the adjacent space, your gaze is drawn to the floors instead of the ceilings: a room full of lego portraits featuring political prisoners, past and present.

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And off to the side, some interactive lego pieces. (Don’t worry, these kids didn’t take apart the main exhibit.)


Walking along the gun galleys on the side of the New Industries Building, you can glimpse the exhibits from above, as the guards would have looked down over the inmates while on patrol.

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And on the floor below, looking through cracked glass panels, a third installation. Again, all that power of freedom and flight, completely trapped and enclosed.


Next, we walked over to the main cellblocks for the audio tour of Alcatraz. The tour and all of the Ai Weiwei exhibits are all included with the price of the ferry ticket. It’s all just self-guided, and you have to be prepared to do a bit of walking to get around the island from building to building.

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The audio tour features voices from actual inmates and guards who spent time at Alcatraz.

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The 45-minute audio tour leads you through the different parts of the prison, and it leaves you in the dining hall, where another part of Ai Weiwei’s installation awaits. Colorful postcards line the shelves, and they’re each pre-addressed to various political prisoners around the world. Catalogues on the table provide a bit of backstory, and visitors are encouraged to write letters to the prisoners.

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The next part of the Ai Weiwei exhibit is in the side wing of cells: audio installations with music and speeches from activisits.

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The final part of the installations was over in the hospital. It looks just as creepy as you would expect an old abandoned prison hospital/asylum to look.

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The @Large installation here consists of white ceramic bouquets filling some of the old fixtures. In the artist’s statement, Ai mentioned drawing upon bouquets that patients often receive and traditional Chinese ceramics.

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There was also supposed to be one other part of the installation– another series of audio installations– but they weren’t working at the time, so we headed back outside to go catch the return ferry.

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The striking beauty of that city so close and yet so out of reach for those prisoners… It’s certainly nice to be able to just get on a boat and go back to shore.


Visit Alcatraz: Purchase ferry tickets, and the Ai Weiwei exhibit and prison tour are all included. @Large remains on display through April 26, 2015.

Anna Wu is a wedding and portrait photographer based in San Francisco but often traveling and working around the world. She creates beautiful, soft, and timeless imagery while capturing the most fleeting of moments. View her work at or contact her to book your own session today.