Guest Review by Elizabeth Bennett: @Large

Guest Review by Elizabeth Bennett: @Large, Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz

I stand in the narrow “gun gallery,” squishing against peeling toxic paint.  I want time with Ai Wei Wei’s “Refraction” without impeding the traffic flow.  It is my first stop in @Large on Alcatraz, a show about freedom set in a prison.  Small corroded windows contrast with the huge shiny sculpture below.  It is made from Tibetan solar-cooker-reflectors.  I lifted a sample at the entrance. Very heavy.  And each feather on this articulated wing is made from about a dozen of these. Being captive and weighted, it will never take flight.  Am I to infer that Tibet will never be free?  Other viewers comment: “dinosaur airplane” and “teapots.”  Teapots?  I hadn’t even noticed the cooking pots, and now I can’t see anything but the pots.  How had I missed the pots? They add evidence of a human touch, the Tibetans, to the industrial vibe of the piece.  But they look like awkward bugs.  I’m not sure if they enhance or detract.  The longer I am in this space, the more claustrophobic I become.  Rather than connecting with the people of Tibet, I connect with the former prison guards, causing me to wondering if, and how, oppressors lack freedom.

Up one level, I look down on my Mills classmates and teachers as they take in “Trace” and “With Wind.“  They (you) don’t know I’m watching.  I have an extremely uncomfortable feeling of power in this voyeuristic elevated position.  I doubt I would have the same reaction if I was surveilling strangers.  Spying on the Lego portraits of “Trace” doesn’t have any impact either.  This makes me question if this is an intended experience or just a passage way out.  I glance at one of the details of the dragon kite “With Wind.” It says “Privacy is a function of liberty” and it fits what I have just experienced and resonates.

I join our group in the main portion of the New Industries building.  An open well lit space.  Friends.  Kites.  Legos.  Pretty, happy colors.  It is a party with decorations.  If “With Wind” were my project, I would take it to the Cellhouse and have it literally move in and out of cells, defying the bars.  Maybe then it would show “freedom transcending totalitarianism,” Placed here, it’s greeting me at the door like a huge puppy wanting to play.  The odd smaller kites placed on the fringes of the room are more obtuse.  They are laden with inaccessible symbolism referencing Alcatraz’s bird habitat, and political prisoners.  I cannot make a connection.

After craning up to look at the kites, my neck gets relief looking at “Trace,” the Lego portraits on the floor, but I find it problematic.  Rather than giving “political detainment a human face,” it takes individual’s faces and abstracts them almost to the point of being unrecognizable.  I see two men with green necks and large, red clown lips.  Many faces have been brightly redacted, others look like cartoon fiction.  I compare the thin, plastic mat of primary colors with its surroundings.  The columns of the room have more presence; and the organically aging surface of the walls seems more real than the pretend realm of Legos.  I choose the most distorted face out of pity for what has been done to his likeness and look him up in the reference books. Seifzadeh.  I want to be moved to compassion, but the synopsis is informative, not transformative.  Nearby, I overhear a woman say “I haven’t read the book for my Book Club tonight, so we need to get through this quickly.”  I would love to collect people’s comments during their viewing of “Trace” and paste them next to the comments for which these political prisoners were detained.  Maybe this would incite thought or debate, the Legos do not.

I hike to the Cellhouse.  Here the ghostly emptiness in the cells above combines with a feel of mind control over the ear-budded public. I quickly find the portal to @Large and flee this odyssey. Unknowingly, I have left “Stay Tuned” behind.

Perhaps because of the previous scene, I find refuge and sanity in the psychiatric observation rooms where “Illumination” is installed.  The tile rooms are larger than my children’s bedrooms, and well lit.  Tibetan chanting, punctuated with a sonorous fog horn type sound and rhythms like heartbeats, float in the space.  Next door, Native American chants are intoned at a faster more insistent pace.  Both evoke their cultures’ repression without being didactic.  It is a light touch applied to a heavy cause which creates the beauty and tension of the piece.  But my awareness shifts; and soon I feel l am listening to a sound track from a movie my husband is watching in the next room.

Another piece with a light touch is “Blossom.”  Delicate porcelain flowers are placed in porcelain bathroom fixtures.  White on white.  Lovely.  I try to find the connections.  Both use water?  A prison hospital doesn’t have vases?  If you don’t clean a toilet it will start to grow things?  This may have more of a relationship to Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds and his desire to keep traditional Chinese arts alive within China.  I like it, and wish I could find a deeper way of experiencing it to justify my opinion. (Otherwise, I may conclude that I am shallow.)

I try to redeem myself at “Yours Truly,” which gives me a chance to connect with my poor Lego friend Seifzadeh via a postcard.  I will not tell him that his face is made from a toy and seriously messed up.  I am thankful that I can do something, however small, in response to his injustice.  My postcard may be misunderstood.  It may have unintended consequences and inadequacies.  It will be far from perfect.  But I tried.  And in summary, this is exactly how I feel about Ai Wei Wei’s @Large.  It is far from perfect but he tried, big and hard and with some success considering his restrictions.  Compared to me, and my peers who are hustling off to book clubs, the scale and breadth of his effort deserves a standing ovation.


About Elizabeth Bennett: Elizabeth studied Art and Philosophy at Stanford University.  She has taken classes in Printmaking while teaching art in Cupertino Schools and at the Palo Alto Art Center.
Recently, she has developed a new way of drawing which uses static electricity. For a brief demo go to

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