by Angela Gala
When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.
— Norma P. Garcia
Editor’s note: In April 2015, as part of Elizabeth Pena’s Museums and Social Issues course, twenty museum studies graduate students visited Alcatraz Island. This post by Angela Gala reflects on the centerpiece of the class visit: Chinese artist and political prisoner Ai Wei Wei’s powerful installation about confinement.
Our visit to Alcatraz Island last spring was destabilizing and enlightening at the same time. Destabilizing because, of course, it’s a former federal prison; I felt the same exact way when I visited the site two years ago. However, in the dreary place that this island is, I found the addition of the site-specific installation by Ai Wei Wei very exciting and almost refreshing. What made it even better was the ability to tweet about it while going through it, since there was Internet access on the entire island. We were all, with Ai, remarkably engaged in the fight for human rights and freedom of expression…
Armed with vibrant enthusiasm, my classmates and I jumped on the ferry to the island on a sunny Thursday morning; the aim of our visit was to find out how well a prison (which is now a national park) can host a contemporary art exhibit, and what problems arise when trying to challenge visitors’ assumptions on prisons and their rehabilitative power.
What we all saw at the entrance of the exhibit was an overwhelming dragon kite (“Refraction”), mythical symbol of power. Visitors can walk through it and fully immerse themselves in its colorful body. What was fascinating to me was the contrast created by the stunning dragon, symbol of freedom, and the restrictive area that was hosting it, as well as the quotes of freedom, thoughtfully chosen, that are scattered throughout its body, with the birds at the end of the trail.
The second gallery hosted “Trace”, 176 Lego-built tiles that represent the people around the world that have been deprived of their freedom for speaking out about their beliefs, as of June 2014 (like Ai himself, who was secretly detained for 81 days in 2011, and still is not permitted to travel outside China). What stood out to me was the contrast between the seriousness of the subject and the playfulness of the material implemented, as well as the idea of creating a “puzzle” out of each person represented: small pieces, big picture, just like every single individual in a society should cooperate in order to achieve freedom of expression and human rights.
However, in order to understand how prisons can be educationally meaningful to visitors, it is necessary to frame our experience with the Wei Wei exhibit within the more extensive context of the United States. Specifically, it is interesting to analyze how other prisons in the country and beyond have dealt with the same dilemma, such as the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site outside of Philadelphia and the penal museums in Ontario.
In the case of the Eastern State Penitentiary, it seems like fostering a debate on the value of prisons as rehabilitative centers is easier when artists themselves communicate directly with the public, without the intrusion of the institutional voice that can impact such transfer of meaning. This is similar to what Ai Wei Wei accomplished on Alcatraz, directly leading visitors to step outside their comfort zone and think broadly.
This collaboration between artists and visitors in creating meaning, in what Sean Kelley calls a “forum”, is what gives space to the modern idea of museums as “machines”, productive laboratories of the future, and as “metaphors” for our larger life, framing our place in the immensity of time. The result could be a new kind of museum that leads us to be social rather than silent. This idea is even more powerful if we think of a space like a penitentiary normally associated with loneliness.
On the other side there are the penal museums in Ontario, which are real museums established in former carceral spaces; here the challenges are even bigger, since these settings permanently offer a curatorial potential that is different from any other sites hosting penal museums.
I believe the mission of any museum is to shape our identity and challenge our traditional thoughts and beliefs. Visiting Alcatraz is “emotionally powerful and well-orchestrated” (Waite, 2011), and the challenges in transferring both education and meaning to visitors are countless.
In order for these sites to be interpreted as “places of memorization” (Walby and Piche, 2011), I believe that it is necessary to communicate hope in a brighter future, first and foremost.
Ai Wei Wei has been able to do that, by combining multiple mediums of art throughout the island; the feathers of the dragon reflecting the sunlight, as well as the bright hand-painted colors of the dragon, give the viewer a sense of hope, creating an experience that is destabilizing and enlightening at the same time, just like the whole carceral experience.
Fortunately, in July 2015, the Chinese government returned the artist’s passport and allowed him to travel to Germany. Yet, it could still be a long time before Ai Wei Wei himself is able to experience the sense of hope that his exhibition inspired in so many of us.
For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.