The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill. – Ai Weiwei
First comes the dragon, a Chinese funeral march, exploding with vibrant colors in intricate and uplifting patterns, celebrating the cycle of life and death, creation visible in the generations gathered, surrounding the passage of the beloved. This one is festooned with quotes like “privacy is a function of liberty” by Edward Snowden, “this thought itself can change the world” by Wei Jingsheng, “I prefer to go to jail” by William Tonet, and “Ze Du out disgusting dictator” by Nito Alvez. Zooming around the room are insectoid dragon offspring, butterfly kites floating to peripheral safety. One is a Star of David.
Next comes the memorial wall, in this case the floor, made of common Legos, depicting prisoners of conscience throughout the world. They are comically pixelated and posterized, their names emblazoned like brands or autographs. The names are more legible in digital pictures than in real life. Binders placed throughout the room allow viewers to locate their favorites, Nelson Mandela, Manning (no first name), Snowden (interesting that he’s @large), Martin Luther King Jr. Most of these portraits are in prison as we speak, and all the American audience can think of is media icons. We have some vague idea that people are being secreted away by our government, but we have never heard of Shaker Aamer.
On the lower level, visible only through bars from the elevated concrete trench of the guard walkway, is a giant bird wing, unmistakable, composed of metal lenses, solar cookers from Tibet, where off-the-grid is a reality, not a choice. These solar cookers, though vastly inferior from the viewpoint of our instant-gratification culture, represent independence for better or worse, the will to live combined with the means to survive, sunlight, all around us, streaming through the bars of the cage. Wings imprisoned are still wings.
Then you go to prison. A long switchback walk up the hill to the door where they put the headphones on you, in the dungeon that is The Most Notorious Prison Of All Time, and you walk, guards yelling “Rack ’em,” metal smashing against metal, to the end of the line, a bathroom stall with no door where you live forevermore. The ceiling is three stories high. It’s a demented cathedral of isolation where community is forbidden. Yet community survives. The cell block you walk down naked, all the inmates howling at you, is Broadway. Everyone has to do it. That’s how you get to Times Square, where the clock tells you how long you have left on this island.
“A” Block is the old block, the military block, where some conscientious objectors found themselves between 1912 and 1933. Here is a row of ancient cells, just like the ones in the movie Escape From Alcatraz, except they have a shiny new metal stool in the middle of the room, a futuristic incarnation of the geometrically perfect three legged Qing Dynasty stool that features so prominently in the artist’s work. The ideas reverberating from the cinderblock are nonverbal, or polyverbal, each prison cell emanating a new language, but the urgency of the message is inescapable.
Upstairs is the hospital, bathtubs, sinks, toilets filled with unique handmade porcelain flowers, each drop of water a unique work of art, a beloved creation, the essence of life shimmering all around. In the “bug rooms,” psychiatric observation chambers tiled to amplify the subject’s vocalizations, Hopi and Tibetan prayer songs reverberate, paying respect to cultures endangered by our more power-crazed tendencies.
And when you get to the dining hall, that one moment of social interaction most common to prison life, you can say something to your fellow inmates. I wrote to Chelsea Manning and Shaker Aamer, (Edward Snowden left no forwarding address.) And why not? We are all in this together. Either we all win or we all lose. The bins were filled with postcards addressed to inmates around the world. The prisons of the world just got served by Ai Weiwei. They are on notice. Justice will roll down like a mighty stream.