Ai Weiwei: @Large

Celebrating the artist’s installation at Alcatraz.

Inside Alcatraz

Ai Weiwei’s seven-part installation @Large, which opened to the public Saturday, begins with a boat ride across the San Francisco Bay. The 15-minute ferry to Alcatraz (the infamous island prison reserved for America’s most notorious criminals—hello, Al Capone) is normally packed with tourists. But for the opening night gala, the sunset excursions had a more self-conscious vibe. Passengers eyed one another coyly in the magic-hour light, trying to figure out who was who amongst art world heavy-hitters (several of whom, like Sylvia Chivaratanond, flew up from L.A. for the occasion), tech players (Twitter founder Evan Williams, One King’s Lane founder Ali Pincus, and founder Tony Conrad) and Bay Area royalty (chef Alice Waters’s daughter Fanny Singer and art advisor Sabrina Buell). For many native San Franciscans, including video art collector Pam Kramlich, it was their first voyage to “the Rock.”

And what better introduction: @Large is the first art show that Alcatraz, a national park, has ever hosted. Ai Weiwei and the curator Cheryl Haines have been working on @Large, which revolves around the subjects of freedom and imprisonment, for three years, navigating the thick red tape around the venue, not to mention the difficulties of the artist’s house arrest. (The Chinese government revoked his passport in 2011.)

Haines looked like a rock star in a gold sequined Akris coat on the back of which she had spray-painted “AI CAN’T BE HERE.” She had dyed her hair blue in an effort to keep herself calm during the nine-month compliance and installation. When asked about her favorite part of the evening, she said, “Bringing together patrons of the arts and human rights in the same room for the same purpose.”

Indeed, there were many congratulatory speeches throughout the evening. Haines, who raised $3.5 million for the project declared victoriously, “We did it, you guys!,” to an audience of supporters including Bob and Randi Fisher and Nion McEvoy. McEvoy echoed her sentiment, “This is the perfect marriage of location and artist. Ai is an artist who stands for freedom of all forms. As does San Francisco.”

Guests were then invited to wander through the installation. The first piece is With Wind, a brightly colored Chinese dragon suspended just inside the New Industries building (a site not normally accessible to Alcatraz visitors). Amidst whimsical winding kites, guests snatched martinis off trays and mingled with park rangers in olive uniforms and tall wide-brimmed hats. Next up was Trace, a Lego carpet depicting faces of political prisoners (including Edward Snowden). Refraction, a silver sculpture made of solar ovens used in Tibet was visible only via the broken glass of the gun gallery.

By this time, the sun was setting and the sky was turning purple, pink, and red behind the abandoned buildings, barbed wire and chain link fence. Director Phil Kaufman posed in front of an ODC dancer dressed in a 20-foot white ball gown embroidered with the message, “No one can silence me as long as I am alive,” in several languages.

Dinner was served in a large tiled room called the Showers, where guests perched over forbidden rice and dim sum. Buckets of dahlias in a rainbow spectrum ran the length of the room. It was steamy. Alexis Swanson Traina, who was wearing a fur collared jacket designed by her sister Veronica Beard explained, “I was expecting it to be freezing!”

In A Block, next door, twelve cells made up the sound installation Stay Tuned, where visitors sit in a cell and listen to words and music of political prisoners like Pussy Riot and Fela Kuti. Illumination and Blossom occupy the upstairs Hospital and are mostly in the dark. They are also the most haunting part of the program. Beaming about with a flashlight handed out at the start of the evening, author Jennifer Raiser said, “Nora Stone sent her rinpoche up here yesterday to rid the space of negative energy.”

Downstairs, Elizabeth Chandler of Goodreads read about political prisoners and penned a postcard to one as part of Yours Truly, the last work, which was set in the Dining Hall.

But before catching the ferry back to the mainland, there was one final stop on the tour: a surprise set from Brooklyn-based synthpop band Chairlift, accompanied by dessert and hot drinks in the Theater. “I feel like we are in a ski lodge in Switzerland,” Yves Behar said, as he enjoyed a herbacious local gin from Mt. Tam. Singer Caroline Polachek’s haunting voice and keyboard strains were like a lullaby over the now dark island and the black waters home.

Photos: Ai Weiwei: @Large

Guests on the ferry to Alcatraz. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Fanny Singer. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Alcatraz. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Cheryl Haines. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Evan Williams and Yves Behar. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Alcatraz. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Norman and Nora Stone. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Installation view of “Trace.” Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Inside Alcatraz. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Inside Alcatraz. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Sabrina Buell. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Inside Alcatraz. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Perfomers @Large. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Inside Alcatraz. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Inside Alcatraz. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Randi Fisher and Stanlee Gatti. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Tegan Gaan and Ross Fraser. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Elizabeth Chandler of Goodreads writes a postcard to a political prisoner as part of Weiwei’s “Yours Truly.” Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Perfomers @Large. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Alexandra Mitchell. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

A performer @Large. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Alcatraz. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.

Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly. Photo by Timothy O’Connell.