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Dissenting Voices: Ai Weiwei Brings Out the Quiet Patriotism of the Parks 

Tuesday, Sep 30 2014

The words of dissidents, political prisoners, and free speech advocates are everywhere in "@Large," a multi-work exhibition by renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei now open on Alcatraz Island — embossed on kites, represented in LEGO portraits, and echoing from speakers hidden behind jail cell vents.

The strident voices of individuals like Edward Snowden (his statement "privacy is a function of liberty," is central in one of Ai's works, With Wind) are unexpected yet welcome in an exhibition, staged in a national park, that was approved by the State Department.

But after all, this is America, and although Snowden may be a political exile, we still enjoy the right to invoke his words — and that's the side of America the National Park Service wants to show its visitors.

"We believe it is more important than ever to redefine our role in America as a place where visitors can examine and question the decisions of America's past, the formation of our present national identity and environment, and the opportunities to shape our country's future so that we begin to develop global citizens," said Michele Gee, the National Park Service chief of interpretation and education, before she led a group into the exhibit featuring Snowden's words. Although Gee noted that the NPS is not responsible for the content Ai created, the political nature of it isn't lost on the agency.

"Look at the park sites. They are not all ones that have stories of honor," Gee said. For her, placing Ai's work on a government property invites viewers to "dig down into the values of the country."

Among park representatives, the favored value is freedom of speech.

"Ai wow wow," breathed Greg Moore, president of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, upon entering the installation space. He said many visitors come to Alcatraz for the gangster stories of Al Capone and other notorious inmates. "@Large" is a welcome distraction from that. The prison, Moore said, is "enlivened with art and a message that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see."

About The Author

Kate Conger

Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.


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