Culture

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

Ai Weiwei creates an elaborate series of installations for display on Alcatraz, even though he's forbidden from traveling outside China and has never been to the notorious prison site.

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The Lego portraits can be viewed from the floor, or through windows looking down on the site from a narrow corridor one floor up where armed guards once watched the prisoners laboring below.Jonathan Luskin/CNET

Think Lego and you might think giant Imperial Star Destroyers and . An exhibit by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei could have you thinking of the little toy bricks in a far more somber light.

The dissident artist and activist has created 176 portraits out of Lego for "@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz," a collection of seven new installations on display through April 2015 at the site of the notorious federal prison in the San Francisco Bay. One of them, "Trace," presents portraits of people from around the globe who've been silenced, imprisoned or exiled because of their beliefs or affiliations.

The portraits, comprising 1.2 million bricks in all, form a colorful field across the floor of a crumbling two-story manufacturing building where prisoners once carried out job assignments making clothes, shoes and furniture. The images can be viewed from the floor or through broken windows lining a narrow corridor one story up where guards watched over inmates -- a confining space that provides a stark juxtaposition to Ai Weiwei's works highlighting the struggle for freedom.

"Assembling a multitude of small parts into a vast and complex whole, the work may bring to mind the relationship between the individual and the collective, a central dynamic in any society and a particularly charged one in contemporary China," reads a statement on the work.

Ai Weiwei, a vocal critic of the Chinese government, was himself imprisoned for 81 days in 2011, and is now on "soft" detention, forbidden from traveling outside China. He rendered his Lego portraits digitally, often mocking up 8 to 10 designs before settling on the final one. Assistants in his Beijing studio assembled portraits of Chinese and Tibetan prisoners. The artist sent a detailed 2,300-page instruction guide to dozens of trained volunteers assembling the rest 6,000 miles away on Alcatraz, which he has never visited.

He also Skyped with volunteers often to survey the developing exhibit and guide workers as they attached 16x16-inch Lego panels into portraits of figures like Nelson Mandela, Burmese pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and Tibetan singer Lolo, who was sentenced by China to six years in prison for recording an album of songs calling for Tibetan independence.

Ai Weiwei also asked that Wi-Fi be installed on the island, so visitors who travel there by ferry can share their impressions of his work via social media.

Some of Ai Weiwei's works on Alcatraz can be viewed through broken, rusty windows.Adam Chin/CNET

"His grip on all the details, even from China, is mind-blowing," said Alexandra Newman, an art guide at the exhibit, which is sponsored and curated by the San Francisco-based For-Site Foundation, which presents art specific to place.

Six panels of Lego portraits, grouped roughly by geographical location, depict subjects from 33 countries, sometimes built in the colors of their national flags. Among the portraits in black and white are those portraying two figures who inspire polarized debate: Chelsea Manning, who passed hundreds of thousands of classified government documents to WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden, who was charged with espionage after leaking 1.7 million classified US government documents to journalists.

A quote from Snowden -- "Privacy is a function of liberty" -- appears in another section of @Large, inscribed on one of dozens of kites that make up the swirling body of a giant handmade Chinese dragon hanging from the ceiling.

As boldly visual as much of the site-specific exhibit is, sound plays an equally powerful role. For an installation called "Stay Tuned," speakers placed behind the vents in a series of tiny prison cells play the words, music and poetry of people who've been detained for creative expression, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot.

"Freedom for me is not a fixed condition but a constant struggle," the 57-year-old artist says. "I think it is very important for artists to focus on...freedom of expression, a value essential for any creative endeavor."

Click through our gallery above to see more of Ai Weiwei's Lego portraits, as well as some of the other installations that make up "@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz."

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In one Alcatraz cell block, visitors can sit and listen to spoken words, poetry and music by people from around the world who have been detained for creative expression. Jan Stürmann, courtesy For-Site Foundation