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Alcatraz’s Off-Limits Hospital Opens its Decrepit Wards

Ai Weiwei’s “Bloom” installation of porcelain flowers in a bathtub and sink in the Alcatraz hospital (all photographs by the author)

Usually locked and off-limits, the abandoned hospital at Alcatraz is accessible to the public for a brief time. @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, which opened in September and is on view to April 26, 2015, has the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei infiltrating the cells, wards, and rarely-seen buildings with art examining human rights and free expression.

Ai Weiwei has himself been subject to arrest and detention, and is still prohibited from traveling out of China. This means his exhibition on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay is a statement on control that he is blocked from personally seeing. His art in the prison hospital, along with the ordinarily-closed New Industries Building and A Block, has installations that use the windswept history of the “Rock” as a backdrop to ongoing issues of free speech and imprisonment. Faces of 176 prisoners of conscience are formed by LEGO bricks in one space, and a large dragon kite scrawled with quotes from people imprisoned for activism winds through another

The hospital opened along with the Alcatraz prison in 1934, although medical facilities on the island date back to the 19th century when it housed an army fort. With an operating room, psychiatric cells, wards with beds, and other resources, a general practitioner and visiting surgeons and specialists gave regular care to the maximum security prisoners, without risking their escape. 

As the FOR-SITE Foundation, which is presenting the Ai Weiwei exhibition, explains in their post about the hospital:

Medical care was one of only four basic rights [along with food, clothing, and shelter] granted to prisoners at the Alcatraz penitentiary. Inmates exercised their right at sick call: every day after lunch, prisoners could line up to ask to be taken to the Hospital upstairs from the Dining Hall. One former officer claimed that as many as 10 percent of inmates would appear in the sick line on a given day, either suffering from genuine illness or hoping for an escape from regular life in the cellblock.

Both Al Capone (wrecked by syphilis) and Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” spent significant amounts of time in the hospital, but most inmates just got the basics like dental work and only minor surgery. Still, like the rest of the defunct prison, it holds a heavy, isolated feeling to it. Ai Weiwei’s installation has porcelain flowers crowding in the hospital sinks and bathtubs, and a recording of Hopi and Buddhist chants filling the psychiatric cells. The delicate interventions are some of the quietest of his exhibition, resonating in a haunting way with the crumbling walls and worn medical equipment of the space. 

The hospital of Alcatraz is open to visitors in conjunction with @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz through April 26, 2015. It is also sometimes part of night tours on the island.