Ai Weiwei's Art Is '@Large' On Display Behind Bars at Alcatraz

FOR-SITE Foundation Executive Director Cheryl Haines with Ai Weiwei at the artist’s studio in Beijing, June 2014
FOR-SITE Foundation Executive Director Cheryl Haines with Ai Weiwei at the artist’s studio in Beijing, June 2014.Jan Stürmann / Courtesy FOR-SITE Foundation

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By Chris Fuchs

Contemporary artist and China gadfly Ai Weiwei is no stranger to prisons. But little did he know his art would wind up in one.

From his studio in Beijing, Ai created seven new large-scale works for an exhibit scheduled to open Saturday on Alcatraz Island, the former federal penitentiary off the coast of San Francisco. The installation, "@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz," will explore themes related to freedom of expression and human rights, as well as the psychological and social implications of the artist’s own incarceration in China three years ago, after an 81-day detainment for tax evasion charges.

Curator Cheryl Haines told NBC News in an email that she first raised the possibility of showing Ai’s work at Alcatraz, now a national park, after meeting with the artist in Beijing in 2011, shortly after he was released. Alcatraz’s storied history, she said, provided the perfect backdrop for Ai’s art.

“So I suggested it," Haines said. "His response was, ‘I would like that.'"

With Ai prohibited from leaving China, Haines said she had to travel back and forth between the United States and China, delivering maps, archival material, video footage and photographs to help Ai conceptualize an exhibit space he had never visited.

Aided by volunteers, human rights organization Amnesty International, and Haines’ FOR-SITE Foundation, Ai spent nine months completing the pieces to be featured in @Large, which runs until April 26, 2015.

Ai Weiwei, Refraction, 2014 (studio installation view, Beijing).Eric Gregory Powell / Courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio

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