The Frame

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Art and activism collide on Alcatraz Island

by Katie McMurran | The Frame

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 24: Visitors look at Ai Weiwei's "With Wind" installation at the @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz on September 24, 2014 in San Francisco, California. The new @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz will open to the public on September 27th and features a series of seven site-specific installations by artist Ai Weiwei in four locations on Alcatraz Island. The exhibition explores human rights and freedom of expression through large-scale sculpture, sound, and mixed-media works. The show runs through April 2015. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Alcatraz is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting more than 1.3 million visitors every year.  No doubt a good percentage of them come to see “The Rock,” the isolated former home of notorious criminals such as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and the dramatic setting for cinematic escapes starring Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery.

But there is more to Alcatraz than the federal penitentiary it housed for 30 years and the action movies it inspired. Before there was a federal prison, there was a military penitentiary that held conscientious objectors.

In 1895, 19 members of the Hopi tribe were incarcerated at Alcatraz for refusing to send their children to government boarding schools. After the penitentiary closed in the 1960s, several dozen Native Americans of various tribes seized the island to bring attention to the U.S. government’s treatment of native people. The occupation lasted almost two years and has been called one of the most successful American Indian protest actions of the 20th century.

In new and original works, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has taken this complex history and woven it into the site-specific exhibit "@Large," on view on Alcatraz through April 26, and presented by the FOR-SITE Foundation. Since the show opened in late September, it's estimated that more than half-a-million visitors have seen the show.

In the seven installations strategically placed throughout the island — including spaces normally off-limits to tourists — Weiwei invites visitors to think about human rights and freedom of expression. He puts a face to people imprisoned for their beliefs or affiliations and gives them a voice. By the final installation, he has ensured they are not forgotten.

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