“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.” So wrote the Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, whose multimedia exhibit now at Alcatraz invites us to think about freedom and imprisonment, crime and conscience, art and dissent. Indeed, @Large is dedicated to all those everywhere who have been deprived of their freedom for speaking out. We don’t think of Alcatraz, which housed America’s most brutal criminals, as a place for prisoners of conscience – although Hopi men were sent there in the late 19th century for refusing to send their children to government boarding schools. But Ai, who was arrested in China and held secretly for 81 days (the charge was tax evasion, the same charge that landed Al Capone on the Rock), shows us the power of freedom in a world filled with prisons.
Yesterday I met a young man from Eritrea, whose brother, a journalist, was arrested 14 years ago for criticizing the government – and who himself was imprisoned, when still in high school, for talking openly about his brother. After his release he walked for two weeks until he reached the Sudan border, where he was kidnapped and held for the ransom of his body parts. His father, who had escaped to Boston many years ago, paid the ransom, and the young man is now here and hopeful. He does not expect to see his brother again.