A compelling paradox lies at the heart of @Large, conceived by the internationally renowned Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei: while under house arrest in his home country, he has imagined and created a monumental installation in the United States. A pointed look at human rights, repression and freedom, this new work is neither located in a commercial art gallery nor in a museum but instead strategically placed on Alcatraz Island, a site whose charged history conjures images of imprisonment and political activism.
A similar tension appears in the work of ODC/Dance, whose moving installation Speaking Volumes unfolded during @Large’s opening night on September 26. While the dancing body is the paramount expression of human freedom, it was subjugated to multiple restrictions and constraints during the evening performance, exploring the issues of censorship and resilience present in Ai’s work.
In early June 2014, @Large curator Cheryl Haines reached out to ODC/Dance choreographer Brenda Way to inquire whether she would be interested in participating in the @Large project. “The minute she invited me, I started working on this,” mentioned Way, whose work often addresses social and political issues. Rather than creating a pop-up installation, Way decided to “create a living, continuing reality that resonated with the issues that Ai Weiwei raises in his work. So that wherever you wandered on Alcatraz, you would run into some living event that brought you back to the concepts that drive him.”
Way looked at a large number of Ai’s works and was struck by “the way that he is known with words,” she recalls. “So the idea of consuming or hiding the words of marginalized people has been an important image. You watch words disappear over the course of the piece in several ways,” the choreographer explained. In the opening act of ODC/Dance’s moving installation, viewers were greeted by a majestic 12-foot figure –dancer Yayoi Kambara- whose white gown appeared endless and whose languid torso and curving arms glistened in the late afternoon autumn light. The skirt bore the written inscriptions of some of Ai’s statements in different languages. While Kambara arched and stretched her upper body, her lower half appeared stuck to her pedestal. The image poignantly echoed Ai’s Refraction piece, which lay silent in the adjacent New Industries Building. An earthbound wing made of a collection of reflective panels and cooking utensils used in Tibet, Refraction weighs 5 tons and is only viewable from thick and often damaged windows that populate the walkway formerly used by guards to watch over prisoners. Literally encased in its showing room, the monumental object resembled a strangely surreal animal suffocating in its enclosed environment. Kambara seemed to give wings to Ai’s entrapped work, but as the audience left the building, a mannequin had replaced her, and the writing had been erased; “A suggestion that people are censoring or obliterating the insights we are trying to share, as artists or activists,” Way commented.
Free expression is like a garden weed: once smothered, it reappears elsewhere. And in ODC/Dance moving installation, Ai’s words kept poking forth, despite the efforts of those trying to repress them. In the second part of the installation, which occurred in the cell house building, a 177-feet long roll of paper dressed the center of the hallway that runs in between two rows of cells. At one end, performers were writing excerpts from Ai’s book Weiwei-isms, while a second group, at the opposite end, were tearing the words apart, crumbling the paper to pieces and stuffing them in a birdcage. At one moment, the latter group stood up, and marched forward, frantically crumpling the paper roll to their chest, uncovering a 177-feet long piece of red fabric, coloring the concrete floor like a river of blood. The closing image of the four-hour performance was of dancer Corey Brady, dressed in white, slowly unfolding the torn pieces of paper that had been discarded in the birdcage and attempting to reconstruct and piece together the words that still appeared on them. The moment pointed to the irrepressible nature of the human spirit, formidably expressed in Nelson Mandela’s memoir Long Walk to Freedom. Of the guards and political system that consistently attempted to silence him, Mandela wrote: “I realized that they could take everything from me except my mind and my heart. They could not take those things. Those things I still had control over. And I decided not to give them away.”
Joined by longtime collaborators KT Nelson, Kimi Okada and RJ Muna, Way envisioned a piece that involved 10 ODC dancers, 10 guest dancers, and 13 dance jam members, whose different ages and origins represented a wide range of human experiences. Although Way and Nelson have been living in the Bay Area for over 30 years, they had never set foot on Alcatraz Island until they first visited with Haines in July. Nelson explained that as they walked through the island, Haines’ description of Ai’s upcoming installation elicited imagery for the choreography, including ideas of birds and flight. “One of the things that inspired us when we visited was the huge cacophony of bird noise in the daytime,” Way added. “Freedom as represented in flight of course was a dominant image from the beginning.”
The image of the bird was repeated throughout the piece. Dressed in bright red leotards, dancers Josie Sadan and Anne Zivolich performed fast-paced solos with fluttering hands, evoking hummingbirds rendered frantic by entrapment. The sense of being caged in was brought to its paroxysm as dancer Dennis Adams encircled Zivolich and proceeded to bind her torso and legs with tape. She fiercely kept on darting in all directions, until her motions became restricted to the point of being unable to move at all. Adams then picked her up and carried her away, slung over his shoulder like a log.
The literal and symbolic images of binding wove throughout the dance installation. At one moment, Kambara reached out to an end of the red cloth covering the length of the hallway. Wrapping herself with it, she first appeared queen-like with an avenue of ruby red draping behind her, until she bent down and began rolling inside the drape, along the 177-feet length of the hallway. The fabric slowly constricted her and hid her head and feet, so much that she became a formless lump of red mass at the end of the roll. Motionless, she was picked up by two performers, recalling anonymous dead bodies carried away.
The theme of restriction carried to the audience, which at times would be involuntary ‘caught,’ and its path interrupted, by a group of dancers running with the frenzy of trapped animals. The installation was conceived so that viewers walked through, rather than stood and watched from afar. “Normally you look at art from a distance. I think [Ai Weiwei] is trying to have you walk in his art, through it. And I think that’s what we are doing too. We surround you,” explained Nelson. This idea of involving the viewer recalled Ai’s call for “people to be ‘obsessed citizens,’ forever questioning and asking for accountability.” By walking a foot close to a bound body, what do you feel? How do you react? What are you propelled to do? were questions raised by the choreography setting and content of the piece.
As the viewers made their way back to the boats at the end of the evening, they walked under the last section of the moving installation, which took place on a bridge that overlooked the path to the dock. There, performers’ circular and sinuous motions of the upper torso and arms recalled the grace of birds in flight. Way called this section “our hopeful moment, [as] we can be agents of change.”
In an interview aired on KQED last week, Ai had mentioned that because of the site’s constraints, he couldn’t “touch anything, add anything” and had therefore conceived his exhibition like a “hanging installation” which, not unlike prisoners, was meant to be there for a limited amount of time. Similarly, viewers and performers came and went on September 26. Yet the dancers’ movements imprinted the landscape, casting light on the inherent resilience of the human spirit, and spreading seeds of change.