Ai Weiwei’s Art at Alcatraz

Lani LongshoreMy guest blogger today is Lani Longshore, a member of the California Writers Club, Tri-Valley Branch, author of Death By Chenille and Eve’s Requiem, and blogger at

Art at Alcatraz

My children played with Legos, building forts, trucks, and hazardous swords when they thought I wasn’t looking. After Jordan Bernal, author of The Keepers of Eire, and I experienced Ai Weiwei’s exhibit @Large on Alcatraz Island, I wish I had taught them to see those little bricks the way he does.

Ai earned his international reputation as an artist with his photography, but his creativity includes all aspects of art. He created five very different collections specifically for the old buildings of Alcatraz. As an artist under house arrest in his native China, and the son of a poet who spent years in China’s re-education camps, Ai wanted to create a tension for the viewer by embedding his art in the notorious American prison. He explored the themes of liberty, repression, confinement, hope and despair with a variety of media. As part of the exhibit, he made portraits of other famous prisoners (some convicted of political crimes, some convicted of criminal charges stemming from their political work). In order to keep the Chinese government from confiscating his materials before he could finish, he used Legos.

The portraits were flat, laid on the floor of the New Industries building (one that is not usually open to the public) like carpets, or a huge scrapbook page. Visitors were allowed to walk around the installation and also see them from the gun walk above the room.

Jordan and I came in at ground level. As we walked around each grouping of portraits, we discovered some of them were so pixilated as to be abstracts. Jordan was impressed with the powerful lines and color combinations of one particular portrait. She took a photo with her cell phone and discovered that the image on her phone wasn’t abstract at all – it was a concrete and identifiable photograph.

Now we saw another level to this art – the perceptional bias of the viewer. From up close, we couldn’t detect the person behind the portrait. Put some distance between the viewer and the art – with a cell phone photo, or from up above, on the gun walk – and more of the person became obvious. Amazingly, we could shift between these points of view. Although we now knew that the arrangement of Lego bricks on the floor represented a real person, we could still see an abstract design. The photo on the cell phone couldn’t change into an abstract, but our brains could simultaneously accept two radically different experiences of the work.

I write science fiction, so I must create characters that the reader will accept as alien but understand in human terms. I must create a resonance in the reader’s brain that will let them hold two radically different views of the characters, yet shift between those views. Reading excellent writing helps me improve my skills, and so does experiencing excellent art. Ai Weiwei reminded me to look at everything with the eyes of a child, an inventor, an outsider. He taught me to layer meaning upon meaning, trusting that my reader will see more than the surface. He also taught me to value what my reader brings to my work, even if I never know what that is.

Lani Longshore’s Blog –
Death By Chenille
Smashwords –
When Chenille Is Not Enough –
Barnes& –
Smashwords –
Eve’s Requiem –

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