Both delicate and fearsome, the traditional Chinese dragon kite embodies a mythical symbol of power. Ai Weiwei unfurled a spectacular contemporary version of this age-old art form inside the New Industries Building. He said that for him, the dragon represents not imperial authority, but personal freedom: “everybody has this power.” The individual kites that made up the dragon’s body carried quotations from activists who have been imprisoned or exiled, including Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden, and Ai himself.
Scattered around the room were other kites decorated with stylized renderings of birds and flowers. These natural forms alluded to a stark human reality: many are icons for nations with records of restricting their citizens’ human rights and civil liberties.
Ai’s studio collaborated with Chinese artisans to produce the handmade kites, reviving a craft that has a diminishing presence in China. By confining the kites inside a building once used for prison labor, the artist suggested powerful contradictions between freedom and restriction, creativity and repression, cultural pride and national shame. He also offered a poetic response to the layered nature of Alcatraz as a former penitentiary that is now an important bird habitat and a site of thriving gardens.
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Ai Weiwei is a Beijing-based artist and activist whose work encompasses sculpture, installation, photography, film, architecture, curation, and social criticism. His art has been featured in major solo exhibitions including Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, UK, 2014; Evidence at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, 2014; and Ai Weiwei: According to What?, which was organized by the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, in 2009, and traveled to North American venues in 2013–14. Ai collaborated with architects Herzog & de Meuron on the “bird’s nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2015.