Alcatraz island and exploring the island

Alcatraz island and exploring the island

Alcatraz island and exploring the island

Alcatraz island and exploring the island

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.

 

 

Arriving Alcatraz on a foggy morning

Arriving Alcatraz on a foggy morning

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.

 

The arrival dock at Alcatraz

The arrival dock at Alcatraz

 

 

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.

 

Entry signage at Alcatraz prison

Entry signage at Alcatraz prison

 

 

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.

 

 

Dragon entry of the Ai Wei Wei exhibit

Dragon entry of the Ai Wei Wei exhibit

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.

 

Colorful kites at the Wei Wei exhibit

Colorful kites at the Wei Wei exhibit

 

 

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’.

 

 

Prisoners done in Lego by Wei Wei

Prisoners done in Lego by Wei Wei

 

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.

 

 

Broken windows create a visual composition that is interesting on its own

Broken windows create a visual composition that is interesting on its own

 

 

 

Empty rooms and wonderful reflections at Alcatraz

Empty rooms and wonderful reflections at Alcatraz

 

 

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.

 

Views of San Francisco from Alcatraz prison

Views of San Francisco from Alcatraz prison

 

 

 

Alcatraz tower and penitentiary in the background

Alcatraz tower and penitentiary in the background

 

Decaying façade entry detail to Alcatraz

 

 

Entry detail to the penitentiary at Alcatraz

Entry detail to the penitentiary at 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.

Interior views of Alcatraz penitentiary

Interior views of Alcatraz penitentiary

 

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.

 

Staircase and hallway details at Alcatraz

Staircase and hallway details at Alcatraz

Cool window treatments, right?

 

Steel iron windows at Alcatraz

Steel iron windows at Alcatraz

 

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.

 

Operating room at Alcatraz penitentiary

Operating room at Alcatraz penitentiary

Alcatraz hospital scene

 

Intensive care or experimental chamber at Alcatraz

Intensive care or experimental chamber at Alcatraz

 

 

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.

 

Wei Wei installation with porcelain ceramics at Alcatraz

Wei Wei installation with porcelain ceramics at Alcatraz

Porcelain details

 

Wei Wei exhibit with porcelain ceramics at Alcatraz

Wei Wei exhibit with porcelain ceramics at Alcatraz

Even the walls at the penitentiary were artful in details

 

Interior room and art exhibit at Alcatraz

Interior room and art exhibit at Alcatraz

 

 

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.

 

Broken window views and trees and Alcatraz

Broken window views and trees and Alcatraz

 

 

Here’s what the views of the trees and bay looks like from outside the prison walls, stunning don’t you think?

 

Trees and bay views at Alcatraz prison

Trees and bay views at Alcatraz prison

 

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.

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17 Responses to Alcatraz island and exploring the island

  1. Theodora March 17, 2015 at 8:11 pm #

    Perfect location for Ai Wei Wei, wow!

  2. Mary @ Green Global Travel February 8, 2015 at 10:19 am #

    I saw a special on how Ai WeiWei was designing the exhibit for Alcatraz during his house arrest- absolutely fascinating. Thanks for sharing your beautifully composed photos.

  3. Tawanna February 7, 2015 at 2:35 am #

    Amazing photos as always Noel. Alcatraz is a very eery place from these images. I lived in the Bay Area during college but never visited. Regretfully. When I look at these photos I just think to myself, “oh the stories” that haven’t been told about this place.

  4. Elle | Spain Buddy February 4, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

    Another super article and pics. I love it when I learn something new too… this time was about the porcelain flowers.

    E x

  5. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas February 3, 2015 at 12:31 am #

    The juxtaposition of all of the colors and art is so eerie with the decay and the isolation. I’ve always been fascinated by old prisons and mental wards (too much TV, haha). I’d love to visit Alcatraz someday!

  6. Lillie February 2, 2015 at 6:56 pm #

    Wow — What powerful, eerily beautiful photos. The blue of the sky is so intense!

  7. Wandering Educators February 2, 2015 at 10:33 am #

    Love those colorful kites – such beautiful photos!

  8. Lauren January 31, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

    That’s really interesting – I watched a documentary about WeiWei so it would be really neat to go to his art exhibition. And what makes it even cooler is that it’s at such a unique place! I’d love to go here. Thanks so much for linking up on #WeekendWanderlust! For next time, please place our Weekend Wanderlust badge on your blog post along with a link back to one of the host’s blogs. You can find the image and any instructions that you need back where you originally added your link, or on any Weekend Wanderlust host blog. That way, other people who are interested might be directed to our link-up! Thank you!

  9. Carmen | Carmen's Luxury Travel January 28, 2015 at 4:40 pm #

    I’m heading to San Francisco next week and just saw your post. We visited Alcatraz a few years back with the kids. I remember seeing the faces of our kids as they listened to the audios and walked around feeling spooked. It’s a creepy place.

  10. Kathryn Burrington January 27, 2015 at 9:13 am #

    Great post Noel and some wonderful photos. Arriving in all that mist must have been so atmospheric. The art installation and the prison itself looks fascinating. What a great way to use the space here. Fabulous!

  11. Sand In My Suitcase January 25, 2015 at 6:43 am #

    Wow – terrific photos! On previous visits to San Francisco, we’ve skipped out on Alcatraz, thinking it too “touristy” – but you’ve changed our mind. It may be a top tourist attraction, but it looks like there’s a reason for that :-).

  12. Bex January 23, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

    Wow – amazing photography, as always – creating atmosphere and stirring the senses. Even more tempted to visit this prison ‘frozen in time’ now.
    Thanks for sharing Noel.

  13. Marilyn Armstrong January 22, 2015 at 4:22 pm #

    We didn’t take the Alcatrz tour in any of our trips to SF. Now I’m sorry we missed it.

  14. Rahman @ Iran Trips January 22, 2015 at 9:12 am #

    What a great use of the prison! The topic of the museum is also very great.
    Also I likes the photos you’ve taken, specially the broken windows!
    Thanks for sharing them with us.

  15. Debbra Dunning Brouillette January 22, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    I love your photos (and your commentary)! I may be going to San Francisco later this year and have never visited Alcatraz so now am interested in adding it to my list. Do you know how long the special Wei Wei exhibit will be there?

    • Noel January 22, 2015 at 8:48 am #

      I’m not sure Debbra, but you can check out the link on the post to his exhibit, it should show the time frame for the entire showing.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 20 quirky, fun and trendy places to explore in San Francisco - January 29, 2015

    […] Cruising to Alcatraz is really a lot of fun and no wonder it’s the number one attraction in the city! A fun and easy ride to the island and lots of activities and tours that you can take. My advise would be to take an early ferry ride and bring a nice picnic to enjoy with those spectacular views of the city. You can check out a recent post I just did touring Alcatraz island here. […]

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