“When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.” – Ai Weiwei
On Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay sits a crumbling old federal penitentiary notoriously feared in its day. Faded red letters over the United States Penitentiary sign announce “Indians Welcome” from the 1969 Native American protest and occupation. Today I took a ferry to Alcatraz to see an exhibit of seven installations by Chinese artist/political activist Ai Weiwei.
Interspersed throughout the decaying prison, Ai Weiwei’s visionary work explores confinement, oppression, and the fresh wind of freedom that cannot be constrained. An intricately constructed, huge, delicate dragon adorned with prayers for wisdom and compassion, festoons the first room. Next is a giant floor installation with the faces of imprisoned human rights activists constructed from one million colorful Lego bricks. Down the cell block is a series of unbearably small, stark cells. In each one, I’m surrounded by the recorded voices of individual prisoners of conscience: one filled with Native American chants, another with Tibetan prayers — Pussy Riot singing, Persian prison poems… All the silenced prisoners singing out their songs of unquenchable spirit here today.
That spirit is in each of us. We’re not being held by force. We’re outwardly free to move about; yet, we, too, experience times of inner confinement. Ai Weiwei says, “We are all potential convicts,”; we can be imprisoned by our mindsets and beliefs, by our fears and confusion. The practice of mindfulness and compassion that we do is the key to freedom from the prison. Especially in hard times, when we face conflict and loss, our own loneliness or pain, our unhealthy thoughts patterns, even a moment of mindful compassion can open the door. We can take a deep breath, acknowledge our difficulty with loving awareness; and, turn toward freedom. This is what we learn by sitting through both hard and easy times — to trust the power of mindfulness and compassion to free us – and let us bring this freedom into the world.
Image Credit: T. Goodman