Alcatraz island: an art exhibit, penitentiary and exploring the island
Hard to believe that it has been over 20 years since I’ve visited Alcatraz island in the middle of San Francisco bay. I haven’t had a desire to visit the island until I heard about a current show happening at the same time which is a first time event on the island. The exhibit featuring Ai WeiWei, a contemporary Chinese artist who is also under house arrest in his home country makes the show at Alcatraz, even more poignant. WeiWei features prisoners from around the world also of like mind: composers, poets, artists and literary people that are being imprisoned for their own personal beliefs and speaking out about the personal and political injustice happening in their own countries.
The exhibit centers on these artists who in spite of being or having been incarcerated, have produced some wonderful artistic contributions in their own right and continue to create. Quite an inspiring place to visit and see an exhibit that imbues that complete feeling of isolation and imprisonment and yet creating hope and inspiring work for the world to appreciate the human spirit and art.
Morning ferry to Alcatraz
The morning was so typical for a winter day in San Francisco, cool and foggy morning that may perhaps burn off or maybe not and remain cold and dreary. It was hard to tell and from our first walk down North beach to the wharf area at Pier 33, it didn’t seem likely to clear up. I picked up my friend Colleen, herself an artist and art instructor in San Francisco, from her North Beach apartment with stunning views of the downtown skyline . In no time we arrive at the Pier which is already packed with visitors. I’m sure it must be busy the entire day for every ferry ride to the island. In fact, I read somewhere that Alcatraz is the number one attraction in San Francisco for travelers (maybe that is why I haven’t really had a desire to visit until recently). We board the ferry amidst the thick fog and it is quite eerie, I don’t recall ever being out on the bay where you can barely see a few feet in front of you. The captain gets on the intercom, welcoming everyone and mentioning the thick fog which prompts them to sound off a very loud bull horn sound every few minutes which really adds to the mysterious and somewhat scary ferry crossing on the bay.
Then as if, it were there was never any fog, the island comes into view and the fog quickly starts to burn off. Just some fog impressions linger which makes for some great photo captured moments (photos above). It really does feel like you are coming into a very different world, far removed from the congested streets, traffic and noise of the city. After disembarking, there is a ranger that gestures to everyone so she can give an overview and history to the island – apparently when you arrive, you are free to wander anywhere but she gives an orientation to the days happenings and tours that maybe happening on the island.
An art exhibit on the island
We head off directly to where the art exhibit is happening in an old building never opened to the public except now for this special exhibit. It’s in the new exhibits building within an old decaying structure facing the Golden Gate bridge – huge paneled windows take up a complete side, some with broken panels, creating interesting graphic patterns and aged patina on the walls. I’m already fascinated with this dynamic and cool space. Right when you enter the front doors, you are greeted with this huge dragon head crafted with paper and balsa wood – brightly festooned with colorful patterns and imagery. It’s striking and WeiWei, the artist, is introducing the dragon not as a dangerous authority figure, but instead it represents personal freedom and individual strength and power. The contemporary Chinese artist Ai WeiWei is world-famous and was also imprisoned during this time frame. His customized work at Alcatraz centers on political activism and personal freedom – it’s only too sad that he was not allowed to leave China to attend his own art exhibit in San Francisco.
Colorful kites fly around the prison walls
The various kites around the dragon have personal quotations from activists and are forms alluding to stark human reality and restrictions of civil liberties and human rights. Putting the kites within the prison walls symbolizes the contradictions of restriction and freedom, creativity, personal expression and cultural pride. Gorgeous and I totally get the restriction of space and freedom from these lovely kites.
All of WeiWei’s work is huge and takes up three large buildings and I am in awe of the scale and how it actually works with the decaying walls and milieu of the spaces. The work is both colorful, some graphic and very thought-provoking. The next installation is completely made with Lego tiles depicting over 176 prisoners detained for their beliefs or affiliations. A short bio/summary describing each prisoner is posted on the window areas and WeiWei calls them ‘Heroes of our time’.
The exhibit space was also wonderful to explore with broken glass and dilapidated rooms with their aged patina and fading colors, I loved walking through and playing with my camera in these spaces filled with so much texture and history. Even people walking beyond the broken glass added to the photo composition, adding details and interest to the images below.
We head out and walk uphill to the main penitentiary on top of the hill and the views of the city and surrounding bay and landscape are simply breathtaking. Even if it was a prison, the daily views to the city must have been some consolation to the prisoners who were confined to harsh prison life, if not for just a few minutes outdoors with these amazing views.
Decaying façade entry detail to Alcatraz
Entering Alcatraz penitentiary
What a foreboding and cold entry with steel bars everywhere you see. It really feels like maximum security for those who are beyond help – this is where the hard-core criminals from around the nation where shipped to for complete isolation from the rest of the nation.
Even for cold steel and thick walls and bars, there was a strange beauty and architectural details that actually made the place very interesting and filled with gorgeous details like the staircase image below and the rusted windows below.
Cool window treatments, right?
I must admit some of the rooms were quite morbid and disturbing to view, you can only imagine the bizarre and unfortunate things that might have taken place in some of these rooms and far away from the public to see or hear.
Alcatraz hospital scene
A few more of WeiWei’s art installations were featured in the main penitentiary including this room filled with porcelain ceramics all in white and titled ‘Blossom’. The installation has transformed these utilitarian fixtures into sculptural pieces with the white porcelain flowers. I learn that in Chinese symbolism, white, flowers and porcelain represent many different meanings to include: death and ever so fragile nature, condolences or comfort to the imprisoned or even the Chinese Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956 where government tolerance for free speech was followed by severe crackdown against the dissent.
Even the walls at the penitentiary were artful in details
For some reason I’m drawn to all these heavily barred windows with their views of the garden and bay, I can just imagine how precious those quick views much have meant so much for all the time a prisoner spent in solitary confinement.
Here’s what the views of the trees and bay looks like from outside the prison walls, stunning don’t you think?
I could have easily spent the entire day exploring the island and even bringing a picnic and sit outside with views of the city skyline. I guess, I’ll just have to come back again when the park service introduces another special art exhibit on the island. At least I hope they continue to do so because the rooms and the WeiWei’s exhibit was quite sublime, don’t you think so?
To find out more about the current exhibit and Wei Wei, you can check out the main website here. I tour a ferry service with Alcatraz cruises to get to the island. I would advise making a reservation in advance since they are always booked weeks in advance. You can check out the schedule and reserve ticket on their website here.
I hope that you enjoyed this post on Alcatraz island and exploring the island. If you did enjoy reading it, could you please share the post with any of the social media buttons listed around the post, I appreciate it. Thanks for hosting me on the ferry ride with Alcatraz cruises, all opinions and thoughts are my own and the service was fast and fantastic.