Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Artist Ai Weiwei: @Large in Alcatraz

Have you ever spent time in a prison cell narrower than the span of your arms? Yesterday we visited Alcatraz Island for the @Large exhibit of world-renowned artist and Beijing Olympics designer, Ai Weiwei, now detained at home, his passport confiscated. 

Imprisoned Tibetan musician Lolo represented here
A big man, not one to bow to authority, Ai Weiwei has created his latest installation from inside house arrest in Beijing. 

He's used his experience as a detainee to speak up for political prisoners around the world. With the assistance of curator Cheryl Haines, he created several site-specific installations at the prison, his theme freedom and confinement. 

In the former prison dining room, he designed Yours Truly, a display honoring 176 political prisoners around the world. We sit at the tables and write postcards to be collected and mailed. The artist's goal is to let these men and woman know they are not forgotten.

Upstairs in the former psychiatric wing, two tiny tiled cells resonate with music, one Tibetan and the other Hopi. In Illumination, we learn that 19C Hopi Indians were among the first prisoners of conscience here, detained for refusing to send their children to government boarding schools. (Photo from for-site.org).

Elsewhere in the hospital, Blossoms brings beauty to grim reality with masses of delicate porcelain flowers, recalling also the 100 Flowers Movement, a brief moment of freedom after China's Communist Revolution. 

Stay Tuned is located in a series of twelve cells in A Block, featuring sound, spoken word, and music relating to each confined dissident. Inside each cell is a single stool where we sit and try to experience their experience. Among the prisoners represented are Robben Island Singers imprisoned during South Africa's apartheid era, Tibetan musician Lolo, and Russian punk band Pussy Riot.

A great Chinese dragon greets us in the New Industries Building for With Wind.

The dragon is composed of dozens of individual kites, many quoting imprisoned or exiled activists, including Ai Weiwei.

These kites are confined here, never to soar in the blue sky.

Further on, millions of Legos are used in Trace, which gives faces to some of the imprisoned prisoners we've met in Yours Truly, whom Ai Weiwei calls "Heroes of our Time."

From above we peer down at Refraction where a vast bird's wing is assembled of metal solar panels locked in place, also unable to soar. (Photo from for-site.org).

It's a powerful experience, unforgettable and haunting. Especially as we exit into the blue-sky-blue-sea afternoon. Unlike these prisoners of conscience, we are able to breath free.

Through April 26, 2015

About Ai Weiwei (Photo and bio from for-site.org)

Ai Weiwei

Ai WeiweiChinese, born 1957
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 the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent from the Human Rights Foundation in 2012. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Searching the Streets of Time

Funicular, Pest side of Danube, Budapest
Last summer, my brother’s big birthday bash launched our travels through Europe By Train. Cara Black was struck by my post from Budapest and asked me to recount it at her blog, Murder Is Everywhere. We were traveling when I wrote it and Cara's invitation gave me the chance to revisit the story, one of family, a lost home, and murder.

Keleti Railway Station, Budapest
We often think of the road not taken in a symbolic sense, but sometimes there is a very specific road, one that can lead to death—or life. We came to Budapest to ask: Merre va Margit Hid? Where is Margaret Bridge? And Merre va Deak Ferencz utca 21? Where is the old home of my nieces’ grandmother?

We arrived from Prague after a six-hour train journey. On the Pest side of the Danube, Keleti Railway Terminal is vast and old, witness to the sweep of history, armies of many nations, peoples on the move.

Across the river, Buda is even older, dominated by Castle Hill, a citadel against the 13C Mongol hordes.

Buda side over the Danube
There have been other invaders over the years, but the Nazi regime evokes particular shivers of fear and hate. Past is present in Europe and every street, every bridge are landmarks of a life.

My nieces’ grandmother, Ann, and younger sister, Vali, had lived with their widowed mother, Rose Gabor, at Deak Ferencz utca 21 in the center of Pest. Then in 1944, the first Jewish deportees were sent to Auschwitz—in freight trains that may have left from Keleti Station. The family was torn apart, forced to hide in three Christian homes on the Buda hillsides. On the day of their road not taken, a bitter reunion took place when they were arrested by Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists and marched toward Margit Bridge.

Rose, seeing a work unit walking along the river, pulled her girls into that line—in the blink of an eye changing their fates, and that of my family itself. Without her quick thinking, my two wonderful nieces would have never been born.

We stood on that bridge corner imagining those horrific days, the soldiers, the fear. Unable to return to their home, Rose turned to a Christian friend, Lily, who sheltered them through the war. Despite heavy bombing, the old stone building at Deak Ferencz utca 21 endured. Here is its courtyard.

Rose ran her couture business below their apartment, its front balcony now overlooking a busy pedestrian mall. 

The apartment is not far from Parliament with Margit Bridge in the distance.

Just south of Parliament is the memorial to Jews shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross thugs, impatient as the Russians closed in.


It was like a punch in the gut to see these shoes lined up along the quay. Delicate button-ups and high-heels, work-boots, all facing the river.

The cold black water below...the silence...and then the bullets, and cries as family and friends fall into the river. Shot in the back.

The cruel scene evoked in mute simplicity, the shoes old and worn, a child’s beside her mother’s.

If not for Rose’s quick wits, this would have been their fate—or the trains.

It is impossible to walk the streets of Europe without the visceral experience of history. The passage of time, regimes, lives, deaths. The statue or plaque of a famous person now unknown. An ordinary street corner where a mother made a life-changing decision. 

In 1941, 725,000 Jews lived in Hungary. 600,000 of them died during WW2.