From time to time I share things here not related to the “Life an Times of Paul Weidlinger” but that come under the heading “Filmmaker’s Perspective.” This is one of them.
I recently visited the seven installations of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island. The installations honor prisoners of conscience around the world. There is a great review of the show in Architectural Record; I just want to focus on the story behind one piececalled TRACE. It consists of 176 portraits of made from LEGO bricks. The LEGO portraits lay flat, covering most of the floor of a building that was once used as a prisoners’ workshop. Each LEGO is a pixel in portrait of a person who has been imprisoned or exiled because of they spoke out against tyranny or injustice. Most are still incarcerated at the time the artwork was made.
The design, transfer, and installation of TRACE and the six other installations (each a totally different concept) was an immensely complicated affair. Barred from leaving China by his own government Ai Weiwei could participate in the on-site installations only via Skype.
Logistics had to be coordinated between the artist, the On Site Foundation (which sponsored the show), and the National Park Service. Finally everything had to be approved by the U.S. State Department because Alcatraz is on federal land.
The site of our nation’s most famous federal maximum-security prison until it was closed in 1963, Alcatraz is now a popular tourist attraction. Each year 1.3 million people visit, lured by the mystique of the famous prison, it’s notorious criminals, and spectacular tales of attempted escapes.
Given that for half a year every visitor to Alcatraz has free access to the art installations, the most politically sensitive issue was the list of people to be depicted in the LEGO portraits. Could any be perceived as a terrorist? Many were labeled as such by the totalitarian regimes that they spoke out against. Would our own government be seen as endorsing these individuals by allowing their colorful plastic brick portrait to be displayed at a federal facility? On the other hand, if the State Department deleted names from the artists’ list, wouldn’t that be perceived as limiting freedom of speech?
By far the most controversial name on the list was not a dissident from North Korea, Syria, Egypt, Gaza, Russia, or Somalia. It was Edward Snowden, a U.S. citizen and CIA subcontractor who turned over a vast trove of classified NSA material to journalists out of the conviction that our government should not be spying on it’s own citizens without due process and just cause. Snowden maintains that the NSA’s wholesale invasion of privacy is an infringement of liberty.
If Snowden were ever to return to the United States he would be treated as a criminal, tried for espionage, and most certainly imprisoned.
Ai Wei Wei, who knows what it is like to lose his liberty, insisted that Snowden’s LEGO image be included in the exhibition. It is a ray of light, in the midst of what often seems like dark times, that the responsible persons at the State Department did not banish him from the list. He’s right there, front and center, when you walk into hall among the 175 others who have risked life and liberty to speak out.
There is something unique and wonderful about the juxtaposition of this famous prison with the icons of social justice. Many people who would never set foot in an art museum or who care little about injustice in distant lands are in for a surprise.
In the mist of a deliciously voyeuristic and morbid look at penal history one encounters champions of liberty, free speech, and basic human rights. It’s this juxtaposition that makes the work important. And for this we have to thank not only one famous dissident artist, but the hundreds of people who made it possible – including the federal bureaucrats who, amazingly, did not flinch.