The first thing that struck me walking into the building that houses Trace, a four-story art installation created by Chinese artist and activist Ai WeiWei, was the stark stone staircase in the lobby, eerily reminiscent of a prison guard tower. The comparison is fitting, as Ai Weiwei: Trace in Chicago, hosted by Alphawood Exhibitions, features 113 portraits of activists and political prisoners constructed out of more than 1,000,000 Legos.
The second thing struck me much later as I walked through four levels of these brightly colored portraits, arranged neatly on the floor and spread out inside a white background–I didn’t recognize most of the names.
Trace was initially exhibited at Alcatraz in San Francisco–one of America’s most notorious and infamous prisons. Due to being unable to hang anything on the walls, the portraits were spread out on the floor. The process is explained in two videos and depicted in a rendering on one of the walls, one of the only things outside of a bio of Ai’s life and work to appear on any of the walls on any level of the installation.
This layout on each level draws the viewer directly to the faces depicted in the portraits. Many have a pixelated effect—a callout to surveillance states, which never seem to stop growing and gaining more power as time moves on.
The powerful versus the powerless is a theme that played out on each floor of the gallery as I walked in an eerie silence past the faces and names of political dissidents, activists, and organizers, all who served or are still currently serving time in any number of notorious prisons across the globe. Ai himself was put under surveillance, beaten, arrested, and imprisoned for his work, and it was during that time he conceived the idea for Trace.
Kiosks spread throughout the building allow visitors to look up each of the names of the persons depicted and learn a little bit about their lives, their “crimes,” and their imprisonment. Some of the names were certainly familiar—Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden. Others weren’t. Roza Tuletaeva, an independent trade union activist in Kazakhstan jailed after a massacre by the government, which killed at least 16 people and wounded another 60 who were organizing oil workers to demand better pay and working conditions. Chen Xi, a Chinese dissident given a 10-year prison sentence for “subversion” over online essays. Ahmed Douma, an Egyptian activist given multiple prison sentences for his participation in protests in the country, including calls for the military counsel that ruled after Hosni Mubarak was deposed to step down.
I toured the exhibit as news was breaking about the Trump administration’s ramped-up family separation and child detention policies. This administration certainly isn’t the only one guilty of detaining, separating, and imprisoning migrant families, and the activities of both Manning and Snowden took place during the years prior to its rise to power. Still, the parallels between regimes considered “oppressive” by Americans and what our own government has done to activists and dissidents —be they well-known or completely unknown—lay bare on the floor.
In my own work as a writer, journalist, and photographer over the years I’ve spent countless hours chronicling and documenting the work of activists fighting to make a better life for themselves and their communities. I’ve seen firsthand the faces of folks in my own community and in others pushed into pavement for protesting, who would later end up facing their own set of charges for standing up for the rights of the marginalized. I’ve watched the security state grow into a behemoth that itself is faceless, save for the millions it collects.
It’s difficult not to consider and reflect on the rising tide of full fascism in both America and in plenty of other corners of the globe walking among the faces of so many who have stared down authoritarian regimes and paid a heavy price for it. That I think, is at least part of the point of Trace. Visitors might not know the names, faces and struggles of any of those shown in the exhibit, and they might not even remember all of them on their way out. But learning about, understanding and connecting those people and their struggles to our own—and doing the best we can to remember them alongside those in our own communities—is something we absolutely must do if we want to build a better world.
Ai Weiwei: Trace in Chicago runs through July 7 at Alphawood Exhibitions, 659 W. Wrightwood Ave. Entrance is by reservation only at 10am, 12:30, 3 and 5:30 pm on Thursday and Friday and 10am, 12:30 and 3pm on Saturday. A limited number of free tickets is available each day; purchased tickets are $25.