When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.
I have lived in the San Francisco area for over 20 years and have visited Alcatraz a handful of times. As a place of historical significance, a former federal prison housing some of the most notorious criminals in U.S. history, it is fascinating to visit. Within shouting distance of the city, it is an island in San Francisco Bay where prisoners must have longingly listened to life going on without them a short boat ride away.
Recently Alcatraz hosted multiple exhibits throughout the prison buildings of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The documentary about his life, “Never Sorry”, is one I highly recommend. He is a vocal and creative critic of the Chinese government’s record on human rights and has not traveled outside of China since 2011 when he was detained for three months.
As I walked through the Trace exhibit with my husband and daughter, moving slowly and mindfully around the Lego images of people imprisoned around the globe for their political beliefs, I was aware what a powerful experience Ai Weiwei created with his army of helpers. A prisoner himself, he was bearing witness to others who had stories to tell and with their actions bolstered the idea of freedom taking flight even when constrained. My eleven year old daughter was mesmerized and could have stayed there for many hours reading the histories associated with the faces we were carefully stepping around. At one point she exclaimed “Mom, there are women here too!”.
Art can lift us up in many ways – it can inspire and it can educate. I appreciate the fact that I can look at (and even create) art to be hung on a wall, and I appreciate it that much more when there is a story involved. But I was taken to a different level altogether when bearing witness to the type of art which Ai Weiwei (and many others) creates – that there can be a deeper meaning that shapes us as humans and resonates far beyond our own surroundings and even our comfort level.
In my own small way, it inspires me to never be sorry for what I create and put out in the world, and to honor those who do the same. Let’s bear witness together.