Institutions haunt me. My mom decided not to follow medical advice and institutionalize me as an infant. But medical institutions still grabbed me and confined me during much of my childhood.
I worked hard to be “good” and “acceptable” to “fit in” and “not cause trouble” because I knew that I was allowed in nondisabled society only as long as I did not inconvenience them. My father, a fire fighter, came home regularly with stories of middle-age wives of his fire company who were put into psychiatric wards for no longer performing their wifely duties. I learned that even nondisabled status did not protect you if you did not perform your female role. As a disabled child I only had to look across the street to see Betty, an adult woman with cerebral palsy, who never left home, did not have visitors, sat home-bound until she died. The message was very clear – succeed in the nondisabled world or be locked up.
As a student studying Special Education I worked weekends with people with intellectual disabilities deciding their programs even though I was always the youngest and most inexperienced person in the room. I visited state “schools” - locked wards housing people with intellectual disabilities who had no education, no rights, no freedom. I witnessed the abuse but kept silent for fear of losing my own freedom.
As I age I worry about getting put on the nursing home shuttle. It seems surprisingly easy. One medical crisis, one time when no one tells the hospital social worker that they will “take care of you” and whoosh you are off to a nursing home without a phone, money, or even identification. Hard to break out without those resources.
So when I visit institutions I hear the previous inmates, I see their marks on the walls, I feel their desperate pleas. All institutions are the same. All institutions are different only in their pretense.
Ghosts upon ghosts. The ghost of Ai Weiwei, the artist forbidden to see this work. The ghost of the American Indians who re-claimed Alcatraz as Indian land. The ghosts of the federal prisoners - including 19 Hopi fathers who were jailed for refusing to send their children to the culturally-killing assimilationist boarding school. All over Alcatraz island the ghosts communicate. It was a prison from the Civil War until 1963. Initially housing Confederate soldiers then Native American chiefs then World War I conscientious objectors and finally it housed federal prison inmates considered too dangerous for other prisons. American Indians, organized as Tribes of All Nations, reclaimed and held Alcatraz for 19 months starting in 1969 and stayed until the US government ended their Tribal Termination policy. They return twice each year, on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, to challenge the intentional misrepresentation of these days. The US Park Service now manages Alcatrazz as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
An sprawling art exhibition made by the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei takes place in seven different parts of the island. He created the site-specific art from photographs and videos because the Chinese government refused to grant him permission to leave China. This was one of many punishments against him.
|[Description: large circle section of the Dragon kite’s body made from brightly colored paper with thin bamboo supports.]|
I enter the first room called “With Wind” where one huge dragon kite fills the cavernous space. The bright colored kites send me to a place of happy children kite flying. But the stark room, the layers of peeling paint, the cold stone everywhere - floor, walls, ceiling belie my self-deception. I am seeing these kites in an institution, a prison for over 100 years. The dragon kite rises and dips from ceiling wires so that many parts are within reach of a standing person.
Ai delivers his message with colors, designs and words. On the individual dragon kite panels he puts quotes from prisoners of conscience such as: “Our march to freedom is irreversible” by Nelson Mandela.” At the entrance he has a bright red panel which pops out from the stark concrete peeling walls that reads: “The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. That is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a window sill.” The kites bring my eyes upwards away from the dreary cold space inviting me to fly, to imagine flying away from this cold and heartless place.
I am reminded of all the times I have been locked up in institutions, mostly medical ones, and wished for this dream of imagined freedom. I focus on the dragon kite embedding it’s color, shape and joy deeply in my mind for I know that I will be incarcerated again and I will need to remember this gift of freedom.
I come into a huge room with stone pillars in the middle. On the floor surrounding the pillars are giant Lego boards, called “Trace”, with pixilated portraits of 175 prisoners of conscience, mostly men, who are currently incarcerated for crimes such as “inciting thoughts of freedom” and “advocating for the rights of poor children to an education”. Artists and teachers are heavily represented here. Laid out on the floor, white Legos between the portraits echoes the way the AIDS Quilt is displayed.
[Description: Lego portrait of Reeyot Alemu, Ethopian journalist]
Ai accompanies the portraits with a book of the images and a short description of why they are imprisoned. In the prison cafeteria with “Stay Tuned” Ai has pre-addressed postcards so that exhibit visitors can write to these prisoners and remind them, and more importantly their jailers, that people care and are watching. Amnesty International provided the addresses and delivers the postcards to the prisons. With 5,000 visitors every day to Alcatraz, the opportunity for visibility for each prisoner is powerful.
I am struck by Ai’s wisdom in depicting portraits in Legos, a child’s medium. Again he reminds me of the powerfulness of simplicity. Anyone can fly a simple kite, anyone can play with Legos. His mediums make his message visceral, connecting with universal childhoods. He speaks directly to our hands, our bodies with this work. No abstract political posters with defiant messages. Here he just shows us their faces and names. It’s up to us what we do with that information.
Up in the prison hospital the only fixtures are the toilets, sinks and a few bathtubs. In Blossom, Ai made thousands of small white ceramic flowers. He fills a few toilets, sinks and one bathtub with these ceramic flowers. As I ponder how best to capture his work on my phone camera, Lisa Honda, a professional photographer is snapping my picture. I don’t notice her at all because Alcatraz is full of people, there is always someone snapping a photo near you - usually of the same thing you are looking at. Lisa likes the image and offers to send it to me. The peeling stone walls, high ceilings, sparse coldness are all bathed in cool sunlight while I am a dark silhoutte toed up to a toilet full of ceramic flowers. Beauty in grunge, celebration in despair, polished white ceramics create shiny reflections. Detritus.
[Description: large white woman in a power wheelchair faces toilet and sink bowls filled with white ceramic flowers and takes a photo with her cell phone. Photo credit: p.p.a.h | CREATIVE - Lisa Honda, photographer]
In the psych ward Ai created a soundscape called “Illumination” mixing Hopi songs with Tibetan ones. He honors the indigenous peoples who both physically inhabited Alcatraz with the Tibetan monks in exile. Sound enters our bodies at the visceral level. These songs are unfamiliar to the visitors, an intentional decision to educate and provide the disorientation common to all psych wards.
I am moved beyond words by the breadth of these installations. Each one surprises me, enraptures me. Ai’s work speaks to me at a visceral level. His simple materials pull me in. His message comes through quietly while I enjoy the art. I leave Alcatraz pondering the omnipresence of confinement, the strive for freedom, the need for beauty and resistance.