Visitors to the Ai Weiwei’s exhibition on Alcatraz Island have sent nearly 50,000 postcards to incarcerated political prisoners worldwide since the show “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” opened at the former prison complex in September 2014. It would seem that the lost art of letter writing has been revived by the Chinese artist/dissident with the interactive work, titled ‘Yours Truly’, is one of seven site-specific installations the artist has created for the small island off the coast of San Francisco, which became a national historic landmark in 1986.
Ai drew on his own experience of detainment to create the work, which seeks to address the isolation felt by many political prisoners who fear that their causes have been forgotten while they are behind bars. The artist can certainly empathise a Ai has not been able to leave China since his 81-day detention by the Chinese government in 2011; he designed the works and oversaw their installation remotely from his studio in Beijing.
Visitors to the interactive work are invited to sit at one of the long tables in the prison’s former dining hall, read about more than 100 political prisoners in 20 countries, and send a message of encouragement to the prisoner of their choice. The For-Site Foundation, which co-organised the exhibition with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, is paying the postage and mailing the cards with help from Amnesty International.
The Thai magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, who in 2013 was sentenced to 11 years in prison for daring to insult Thailand’s king, has received “thousands” of postcards, according to his wife Sukanya Prueksakasemsuk. “Somyot has passed his regards to all of you who made his days in prison brightening,” she said in a statement.
Another recipient of postcards is the Egyptian demonstrator Ahmed Maher, who was a co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement. Although Maher is forbidden access to paper or writing implements in prison, his brother Mostafa has been showing him photographs of the postcards on his cell phone during visits.
The largest proportion of the cards, more than 12%, has been sent to prisoners in the US, according to the foundation, while 8.7% has gone to India and 8.1% to Vietnam. Many more postcards are due to be sent before the exhibition closes on 26 April. “@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz” has received more than half a million visitors to date.