Alcatraz is part of the mystique of San Francisco. Tourists from around the world can see it from Fisherman’s Wharf. It looms out there in the Bay. The island isn’t that far away. Locals rarely make it out there. It’s one of those, “Yeah, I really should go there someday,” kind of things. The last time I went out to Alcatraz was twenty five years ago.
Maybe it’s too “touristy,” but going out to Alcatraz is an experience San Franciscans should experience, and the views are unique. There’s an added attraction to a tour of Alcatraz this spring. The Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei has chosen Alcatraz as a very appropriate place to show his art installation.
It was another perfect weather day in San Francisco. Sunny and very clear. A great day to be out on the Bay. It’s California irony. We’re in the worst drought in five hundred years. Everyone wants it to rain, but we keep getting perfect weather days. There wasn’t much rain during the winter.
The ferry to the island leaves from Pier 33, not far from the Ferry building. We lined up for a short wait for the ferry. The people in line were buzzing and excited.
We’re fascinated with crime and criminals. People cheered the exploits of John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde during the Depression. Even the most vicious of the gangs had a bit of a Robin Hood mystique going for them. The reality could be much different, but Americans loved to follow the exploits of those who dared to live outside the law. People today may be more drawn to tales of crime than ever.
If the gangsters were caught that fascination didn’t die. There was more capital punishment back then, but most convicted career criminals faced long prison sentences. People still wanted to know what happened to the criminals who had been caught and convicted. After being so reckless and free, how would they deal with being locked up for years?
Alcatraz held the worst of the worst. Most of the inmates on The Rock had caused problems at other prisons and were sent to Alcatraz as a last resort. Inmates were not supposed to talk to each other. It was close to solitary confinement. Added to the burdens of penitentiary life was the proximity of San Francisco.
Sound travels on the Bay. You can hear the sounds of The City at night. I’ve camped on Angel Island which is farther from The City than Alcatraz. It’s a bit eerie how much you can hear from San Francisco. It was so close the convicts could hear the clang of the cable car bells. They knew people were going out and having a good time. They could hear them while they were stuck on The Rock.
Many of the criminals on The Rock had some success before getting caught. It wasn’t that long ago that they would have hit a big city with plenty of money to spend. They could hear the nightlife traffic sounds of San Francisco, but now they were stuck in a cell.
It always surprised me that former inmates returned to Alcatraz. I thought it would be the last place they would want to see again. Former guards and even inmates help keep the history alive. There are former convicts who have helped with tours on The Rock. They talk about life on the island.
Seeing the island and prison again was great, but this visit was timely. Alcatraz was hosting an art installation by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Weiwei is an internationally acclaimed and award winning artist and architect. He was consulted for the “Bird’s Nest” stadium that was used at the Beijing Olympics. Weiwei later spoke out against the Olympics and the political repression in China.
After the Sichuan earthquake, Weiwei had dared to say what many in China were thinking. Many students had died in schools that had been poorly built. Weiwei accused corrupt officials with profiting from lax construction standards that caused many deaths.
Some thought that Weiwei’s high profile as a famous artist would save him from prosecution. It may have made him the target of harassment. The Chinese government was enraged when he spoke out. He was arrested for “economic crimes” and charged with tax evasion. He was kept very isolated. Eventually he was convicted of tax evasion and fined heavily. An Internet campaign helped him pay the fine. His passport was confiscated and he can’t leave China.
We arrive and it takes a while to unload the passengers. Then we get a short talk from a ranger. There will be guided tours, but we decide to climb up the hill at our own pace. We’re warned to keep out of restricted areas. Some of the areas are closed because they are deteriorating and dangerous. Part of the island is closed to visitors to protect the nesting grounds of Brandt’s Cormorants.
A trip to Alcatraz can be physically demanding. We’re told the hike to the top is the equivalent of walking up thirteen stories. You don’t notice the physical exertion because the views are so great, and there are many diversions on the way up. It’s not like walking up a stairwell. Golf carts are available for those who need them, but few used them. There are a few crumbling buildings on the walk up. Some renovation has been done, but it’s getting harder to preserve the historic buildings.
There are so many levels of history here. Near the top of the walkway is a water tower that still has graffiti from the Indian occupation that started in 1969. It was a desperate attempt to call attention to the plight of the American Indians. They used some of the buildings for protection from the wind and fog, but the buildings had deteriorated badly. It could not have been fun camping out in the middle of the Bay. Was it their last chance to get their message across? The occupation went on for a couple of years.
After the occupation there was more interest in using Alcatraz. There was a plan for a casino that never seemed likely or practical. Eventually it became a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It’s managed by the same park rangers that we see in Yosemite and other natural wonderlands.
Twenty five years ago I heard a ranger start the tour by telling us how bummed out he was when he learned he was assigned to Alcatraz. Rangers train at forestry school, and they were looking forward to working and living in the great outdoors. They weren’t happy to be sent to The Rock in the middle of a big city, but the ranger said that the place grows on you. He learned to appreciate the unique ecology of the island and the surrounding Bay.
We reached the top of the island and the first station of the installation, “With Wind.” We enter the New Industries Building. Inmates worked here making clothes, shoes and other items. Working was a privilege on Alcatraz. It helped alleviate the boredom. There are colorful silk dragons displayed inside. The art is quite a contrast to the shattered windows and rusting pipes. Nothing says history like crumbling infrastructure.
Weiwei’s father was the poet Ai Qing. He was branded a counterrevolutionary, and he and his family were banished to the Gobi desert during the People’s Revolution. Flying kites was one of the few pleasant childhood memories of Weiwei. Flight means freedom. Freedom is a dream on Alcatraz.
Going farther into the building is a larger room. The floor is covered with portraits of political prisoners from around the world. From a distance they look like pixilated photos, but a closer look reveals that they are Legos! You have to take a close look. The portraits are done so well, it’s hard to believe they’re Legos. A docent explained that Wei Wei drew up the designs from pixilated photos. Unable to leave China and under house arrest, he sent blueprints to volunteers in San Francisco. They must have had a huge Lego party!
We went up a stairwell that took us to the next stop: “Refraction.” There was a long walkway that looked down into a large room that was similar in shape to the New Industries Building. The walkway was a “gun gallery.” Armed guards went up and down the walkway to watch the inmates. Most of the windows are broken. Jagged glass and rusty iron bars are behind a plastic screen that keeps us from being jabbed.
It was a little hard to see, but there below us was a large sculpture. It looked like a giant insect with what looked like wings. On the wings were kitchen pots and pans, which made the sculpture look like an oven.
A young female docent told us that building the sculpture had been a challenge. We’re very close to the nesting site of the Brandt’s Cormorants. The birds could not be disturbed so the sculpture had to be assembled quietly. They weren’t allowed to use power drills!
The handout program says that the sculpture “is based on observation of birds’ wings... The feathers are reflective panels used on solar cookers in Tibet.” The creature is cramped and trapped in the crumbling walls of the old prison.
At the end of the walkway we came to an area that was closed. This was near the nesting site for the Brandt’s Cormorants. The ranger had told us that this was the only nesting site in a five hundred mile radius. The birds are very skittish, and if they are disturbed they may abandon their nests.
We made out way up to “A Block.” It’s one of the older buildings on the island. “Stay Tuned” is a sound installation. Cells have sound pumped into them. There is a stool in the middle of each cell. You can hear the sound on the outside of the cell, but it’s more powerful to hear it from the inside of the cell. The cells are small. It’s hard to imagine that small cell being your whole world.
At the first cell we hear poetry in a Middle Eastern language. I went to Weiwei’s web site to capture the details of each station in the installation. The language was Iranian. Ahmad Shamlu was a poet and journalist who must have crossed the Shah. He was jailed in 1954 for fourteen months. The poem is “In This Dead End Street.” It’s a mournful start to the installation.
Signs explained the art and biography of each prisoner. Lolo is a Tibetan singer who called for Tibet’s freedom from China. He was accused of “splittism.” He was sentenced to six years. We hear “Raise the Tibetan Flag, Children of the Snowland.”
Next is a poet from the Sudan, Mahjoub Sharif. We hear “A Homesick Sparrow,” which he wrote in prison. He was called the “poet of the people.”
“Manifesto” is a poem by Victor Jara. After the Chilean military coup, “Jara was arrested, tortured and killed.”
The next cell features a song by a group I’ve heard about. The Plastic People of the Universe was a Rock band founded in Czechoslovakia in 1968. They were inspired by the works of Frank Zappa. In 1976 they were imprisoned after performing at an “unauthorized music festival.” They were leaders in the fight for Czech freedom. We hear “Toxika.”
The Nazi outrages of the last century were the ultimate in political and cultural repression. Pavel Haas wrote “Study for String Orchestra” while he was in a concentration camp during World War II. His compositions were performed by inmates of the Nazi death camps. He died at Auschwitz.
Martin Luther King was jailed at least thirty times. We hear some of his speech, “A Time to Break Silence.” It was a bold statement against the Vietnam War.
During the 2009 presidential election in Iran Arya Aramnejad was tortured and imprisoned for a year. We hear his poem, “Ali Barkhiz.”
Liao Yiwu wrote “Massacre” about the revolt in Tiananmen Square. He was arrested in 1990 and served a four year sentence. He now lives in Germany.
“What a System (What a Crime)” is a song by The Robben Island Singers. They were activists imprisoned in apartheid South Africa. The song protests the exploitation of black workers in African gold mines. The Weiwei site says, “Singing is a contrast to the isolation and enforced silence of imprisonment.” It’s a stark reminder of where we are. The prisoners on Alcatraz were strongly discouraged from talking to each other. Fela Kuti was a Nigerian singer who was imprisoned twenty years for “currency smuggling.” We hear “Sorrow, Tears and Blood,” a song about the Soweto Uprising of 1976.
Pussy Riot made international news. The punk band was arrested after demonstrating inside a cathedral in Moscow. They were charged with “Hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Most of the band was jailed for two years. We hear “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away. (Punk Prayer)”
It’s a short walk to the “Psychiatric Observation Rooms.” This part of the installation is “Illumination” and “Blossom.” In Illumination we stand in small rooms used to evaluate convict’s mental issues. The rooms seem a bit ominous even before we hear what their use was. Each room has chanting piped in. One is American Indian. The other is Tibetan. From the handout: “Drawing parallels between two groups that have been subject to cultural and political repression, the artwork makes pointed connections between China and the United States.”
They must have got a lot of business in the Psychiatric Observation Rooms. Alcatraz was mentally challenging. A docent tells us that out of control inmates were sometimes kept in cages. Even with the sun streaming in from the glorious day on the Bay this area is eerie and unsettling.
In other rooms there are bathtubs and toilets filled with flowers. This is the next installation: “Blossom.” It’s odd to see so many flowers in this grim place. A sign calls them “porcelain bouquets.”
The Dining Hall is always one of the more dramatic parts of the regular Alcatraz prison tour. Maybe it’s because of all the dramatic scenes we’ve seen in movies. The inmates on Alcatraz were well fed. The authorities learned that it was easier just to make sure the inmates had good food. The Dining Hall was one of the few chances at any social interaction among the inmates. It’s still a grim look at everyday life on The Rock.
The art installation ends in the next room. Postcards are available to send to political prisoners from around the world. It’s hoped that they’ll be encouraged when they get a reminder that they’re not totally forgotten.
Weiwei’s art is a powerful statement on the nature of political repression. Seeing it inside the historic prison was an amazing experience. Special thanks to John Webster, Stefan and Nancy Dasho who made it a unique and interesting day on The Rock!