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At Alcatraz prison, Lego portraits fight for freedom

At the site of a notorious federal penitentiary, renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei uses an unlikely material, 1.2 million Lego bricks, to highlight the global reality of political detainment.

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Leslie Katz
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1 of 12 Adam Chin/CNET

'Heroes of our time'

Lego bricks, generally the stuff of lighthearted creative play, take a somber turn in "@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz," a provocative exhibit by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei on display through April 2015 at the site of the notorious federal prison outside San Francisco.

In "Trace," a series of intricate hand-built Lego portraits spread across the floor of a dilapidated two-story manufacturing building where prisoners once labored, Ai Weiwei depicts more than 170 people from 33 countries who have been deprived of freedom for their beliefs, affiliations or political actions.

"Many of them might stay in jail for the rest of their lives or be forgotten by the general public, but in truth they are heroes of our time," the 57-year-old artist says in a statement.

Related article: Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz

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2 of 12 Adam Chin/CNET

Among the 176 figures Ai Weiwei depicts in Lego are well-known political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and Burmese pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, pictured here.

The artist, a vocal critic of the Chinese government, was himself imprisoned for 81 days in 2011, and now held in "soft" detention, is forbidden from traveling outside China. Unable to visit California to supervise the construction of "@Large," he created a detailed, 2,300-plus-page instruction manual for dozens of trained volunteers assembling the work and Skyped with team on the island often to check in on their progress. He also requested that Wi-Fi be installed on the island so visitors can share their impressions of his work via social media.

"His grip on all the details, even from China, is mind-blowing," said Alexandra Newman, a recent art history graduate of Boston University and an art guide at the exhibit.

Related article: Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz


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3 of 12 Adam Chin/CNET

Snowden in bricks

A figure who inspires polarized debate, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, appears in black and white. Ai Weiwei created seven installations for display at Alcatraz,  though he has never been there.

Related article: Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz


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Lego expanse

Six large panels of Lego portraits, comprising 1.2 million Lego bricks, form "Trace," a colorful expanse along the floor of Alcatraz's New Industries Building. Work was considered a privilege at the federal penitentiary as it offered an escape from isolation and boredom, and prisoners came to this two-story laundry and manufacturing facility to do assigned jobs such as make clothing, gloves, shoes and furniture.

Related article: Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz


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5 of 12 Jan Stürmann, courtesy of For-Site Foundation

At work in Beijing

Designers at Ai Weiwei's Beijing, China, studio refer to computerized mockups to assemble Lego portraits of Chinese and Tibetan prisoners out of 16x16 inch interlocking grids. The completed works were shipped to the US, with volunteers in California assembling the remainder  of the Lego images that make up the "Trace" installation now on display at Alcatraz.

The artist "had every Lego placed and it was up to the volunteers to do the actual labor," explained Alexandra Newman, an art guide for the show.

Related article: Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz


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6 of 12 Leslie Katz/CNET

View from above

A view of one of Ai Weiwei's Lego portrait panels as seen through the broken, rusted windows that look down on the exhibit floor from a narrow walkway one floor up. The peeling, disintegrating walls of the New Industries Building provide a distinct contrast to the shiny, colorful Lego bricks, 1.2 million in all.

Related article: Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz


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7 of 12 Adam Chin/CNET

Portrait of a WikiLeaker

Among the Lego portraits on display at Alcatraz through April 2015, viewers will find Chelsea Manning, the US Army solider who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for transmitting hundreds of thousands of classified government documents to WikiLeaks.

Ai Weiwei and his studio assistants in Beijing, China, built some of the Lego portraits and shipped them to California for the exhibit. Since the artist is currently banned from traveling outside China, the rest were built by volunteers on-site using detailed instructions from the artist.

Related article: Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz


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8 of 12 Adam Chin/CNET

Jailed journalist

Wi Weiwei's Lego portraits depict people from around the world in varying color combinations that sometimes incorporate the colors of their country's national flag. This one shows Agnes Uwimana Nkusi, an editor for the independent Rwandan newspaper Umurabyo who was imprisoned in 2013 after publishing opinion pieces criticizing government  policies and alleging government corruption. She was sentenced to four years.

Related article: Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz


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9 of 12 Adam Chin/CNET

'Privacy is a function of liberty'

While NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's portrait appears in one section of Ai Weiwei's "@Large" exhibit, his words also make a showing in another, as part of a giant handmade Chinese dragon kite that hangs from the ceiling of the New Industries Building.

The kite features an enormous, vibrantly colored head and 70 smaller kites trailing behind it that make up the body. The smaller kites contain stylized symbols of nations with records of violating human rights and civil liberties, and some contain quotes from people the artist sees as symbols of freedom and justice.

Related article: Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz


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10 of 12 Adam Chin/CNET

Owl looks down from on high

Kites made of paper, silk and bamboo peer down from the ceiling of a former prison building as part of "With Wind," one of the installations that makes up "@Large: Ai Weiwei on  Alcatraz," an exhibit supported by the San Francisco-based For-Site Foundation, which presents art specific to place. The kites include symbols such as birds and flowers that reference countries with records of violating human rights.

"By confining the work inside a building once used for prison labor, the artist suggests powerful contradictions between freedom and restriction, creativity and repression, cultural pride and national shame," reads a description of "With Wind."

Related article: Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz


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11 of 12 Adam Chin/CNET

Bird with a message

A different sort of bird appears in the installation "Refraction," which presents a giant metal sculpture with feathers made from reflective solar panels used on solar cookers in Tibet.

Reads the literature accompanying the sculpture: "'Refraction' uses imagery of flight to evoke the tension between freedom -- be it physical, political or creative -- and confinement."

Related article: Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz


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12 of 12 Adam Chin/CNET

View from the gun gallery

Ai Weiwei's flowing kites can be viewed at floor level, or from above in the gun gallery. The entire exhibit "@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz" juxtaposes confining vantage points such as narrow corridors and cells with works that explore human rights and freedom of expression.

"Freedom for me is not a fixed condition but a constant struggle," the artist says. "I think it is very important for artists to focus on...freedom of expression, a value essential for any creative endeavor."

Related article: Dissident artist's Lego portraits of injustice do time on Alcatraz


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