We’ve always been of the opinion that any excuse is a good excuse to go to San Francisco, and seeing @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz—Chinese artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei’s site-specific installation on Alcatraz—was a better excuse than most.
@Large, on view on Alcatraz until April 26, 2015 should not be missed. We counted ourselves lucky to have the freedom to visit the exhibition, when Ai Weiwei himself was not allowed to leave his country to prepare, install or experience the show in person and was forced to conceive of and execute the pieces from afar. This made us feel all the more compelled to hightail it to San Francisco pronto.
Day One – Friday Afternoon
After arriving early afternoon on Friday, we headed straight to Hayes Valley. We caught up with friends over salads and glasses of rosé at
Bar Jules then squeezed in some shopping at the chic boutiques along Hayes Street. Last but not least, we made our way to guilty pleasure, Azalea, where we found some Ryan store-like dresses at Ryan store-like prices. Sadly there was no Ryan or Steve to take the shopping fun to the next level. Nevertheless, none of us left empty-handed. Next we made our way to March, a small housewares boutique that has long been on our list. We wanted pretty much everything in the store and only our already bursting at the seams carry-ons held us back from doing some major damage there.
We dashed back to the hotel where we quickly changed for our dinner at Coqueta, a rustic-chic, Spanish restaurant right on the water, near the Embarcadero. We had fun trying what well seemed like half the items on menu. In fact, the Patatas Bravas, Pulpo a la Parilla, Gaucho Bistec, and Coliflor con Romescu are still calling our names. Coqueta was packed, boisterous and fun-filled.
Although we had a few sangrias in us, after our Friday night dinner, we all watched the video Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry which gave us some background and a much deeper understanding of the artist, his convictions, and his sense of humor. We definitely recommend watching it before you go.
@Large on Alcatraz
We booked our tickets a week or so before the trip to ensure we’d make it on the 8:45 am Saturday morning ferry. We had a gorgeous ride over, and being on the first boat of the day was well worth the early wake-up call. We had opted for the Early Bird Exhibition tickets, which included an orientation, ferry tickets, access to the cell house and installations, the audio tour and even a little gift to help sweeten the deal.
Armed with our tickets, we first got an overall introduction to the island and its history, and then just the Early Bird ticket holders gathered to get an orientation of Ai Weiwei’s installation. Our group then headed to the first of the seven installations that comprise @Large.
The With Wind installation uses a huge traditional Chinese dragon kite trapped in a prison building to make a statement about personal freedom; Trace creates Lego portraits of 176 people from around the world who have been imprisoned or exiled because of their beliefs and includes binders where we found background stories for each of them; Refraction allows us to glimpse, through beat-up glass brick windows, a bird-like creature made up of solar panels and pots and pans, making a comment on the political situation in Tibet.
The sound installation, Stay Tuned, although not as elaborate as some of the others, was the most powerful piece for us. Twelve cells set along a row have just a simple stool inside where we could sit by ourselves and listen to words, poetry and music by people who have been imprisoned or detained for their creative expression. It was here that we most strongly felt the solitude and suffering of those who stood up for their beliefs. We also felt an incredible sense of hope in the beauty, bravery and creativity of their defiance; Illumination, uses Tibetan and Native American chanting to make a comment on prisoners of conscience actually imprisoned at Alcatraz and those still resisting repression today; in Blossom the prisoners’ sinks, toilets and bathtubs are filled with white ceramic flowers juxtaposing the well-worn plumbing and walls with crisp white purity and making us search for our own interpretations of this pairing. Finally Yours Truly again had the binders with each prisoner and exile’s story, but this time we could choose a postcard, write a personal message and have it delivered (or so we hoped) to those who have been imprisoned or exiled. While we were writing our own cards, we noticed others writing their cards in Arabic, Chinese and other languages. We were also heartened to see small green stickers next to some of those prisoners in the binders who had been released since the start of this exhibition.
Going to Alcatraz on its own can be a very emotional experience. With the addition of this installation we found ourselves moved to tears and so much more aware of the suffering and bravery of others to ensure our personal freedom. We highly recommend this exhibition.
TIP: Watch the video we mentioned above to learn more about the artist and avoid the steep $125 guided tours. The Early Bird tickets are $50 and the regular self-guided tickets are only $30 (plus you can still hop on the 8:45 ferry to avoid the crowd). You should buy your tickets at least five days in advance. We again used Eventbrite for our tickets, as we have the app and are only too happy to forgo the paper tickets.
TIP: Don’t skimp on the warm clothes when you’re packing. It can get downright chilly, not to mention foggy, on that early morning boat ride. We even threw in a hat and gloves for good measure.
The Ferry Building
Once we hopped off our boat, it was a just quick walk to one of our classic SF stops, The Ferry Building. Saturday is Farmers Market day just outside the building and once inside we made sure to visit some of our favorite spots like Boulette’s Larder/Boulibar for delicacies, Cowgirl Creamery for some of our favorite local cheeses, Blue Bottle Coffee for a pick-me-up and Heath Ceramics for gorgeous, earthy, Sausalito-based ceramics, all before heading to another classic, the Slanted Door, for lunch. Although it gets a lot of hype, we love the view and couldn’t make a trip to SF without sampling some of our favorite dishes there.
The de Young Museum
After lunch and a quick recharge back at the hotel, we squeezed into our local friend Sandra’s red mini and winded our way through the Presidio over to Golden Gate Park. The Herzog + de Meuron designed de Young Museum is not only one of the most architecturally interesting museums in the city, it has a great observation deck where you can get amazing views. We saw the Keith Haring retrospective when we were there, but click here to see what’s currently on view. If you’re there in April, don’t miss Bouquets to Art. For one week only, some of the area’s best floral designers create visually stunning arrangements that are inspired by and placed near art from the de Young’s permanent collection. Also, the de Young just announced next year’s highly anticipated Oscar de la Renta exhibition. We will definitely be back in 2016 for that, along with SFMOMA’s reopening after its huge expansion project.
We made our way over to a little pocket of bars and boutiques on Divisadero Street where we did some browsing and made a quick stop, first at NOPA and then at La Urbana for cocktails. Both are great spots and we wish we’d had more time to linger. We Ubered back to the hotel for a shower and spruce up and then headed to Locanda (sister restaurant of well-known foodie hotspot, Delfina) for dinner. We loved this place. It was sophisticated and chic and had a very hip vibe to it. Their signature “Jewish-style artichoke” dish was spectacular as was the Grilled Seppia “al Spieda.” This just may have been our favorite restaurant of the trip.
Day Three – Sunday
Andy Goldsworthy Installations
After the confines of Alcatraz we needed a taste of freedom, so early Sunday morning we made a beeline for Goldsworthy in the Presidio. We love artist Andy Goldsworthy’s work and he has three site-specific installations in the Presidio, a historic military base converted into a public park. There are miles of hiking trails and some amazing views of the city to be had and in just under three miles we were able to see all three of Goldsworthy’s tree-related installations, Tree Fall, Wood Line and Spire, giving us a good little morning workout and just the excuse we needed to go to Sunday brunch, or so we thought.
Don’t make the same mistake as we did, start your hike at Tree Fall, Goldsworthy’s indoor installation inside the Powder Magazine, a small but historic building near the Main Post. There you can pick up a brochure describing all three of the installations along with a suggested hiking route. You can also ask questions about the pieces. We started at Spire and spent about a half an hour hiking in the wrong direction before figuring out how to get to Woodline. But no harm done, we got a little more exercise and better yet, it was free.
TIP: While you’re in video watching mode, check out Rivers and Tides. We highly recommend this documentary on Andy Goldsworthy’s work.
We looked at the time, raced back to the hotel, grabbed our bags and Ubered to the airport. Our dreams of a leisurely brunch at Cafe Zuni, Piccino or Arguello, were just that. We’d packed a lot in, but in this city there is always something more to see, making us certain that we will be back for a visit soon.
There were (and still are) cheap flights to be had on most airlines so we chose Virgin, whose easy electronic ticketing, e-mail check-in reminders, well-designed plane interiors and chic terminals have never let us down. Surprisingly we managed to find good food at the airport and indulged in salads and desserts at the well-curated Napa Farms Market rounding things out with sandwiches at the Plant since we’d run out of time for brunch in the city.
We usually stay at the St. Regis and love their corner rooms and proximity to SFMOMA, but this time since there were five of us (and we were lacking in hotel points) other options were a must. Our friend Christina worked her magic and found us a great deal at the Fairmont Heritage Place. With a free car service and breakfasts included, we couldn’t say no to this new option. We all shared a roomy two-story, two bedroom suite with a fireplace, kitchen and great view of Alcatraz, perfectly setting the scene for our trip to “the Rock.”
Go. And go soon!
UPDATE ONE (3/24/15): It was just announced (the same date as this posting) that Ai Weiwei was awarded Amnesty International’s 2015 Human Rights Award. The same one given to Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai and Aung San Suu Kyi, among others. All the more reason to go, and go soon!
UPDATE TWO (7/22/15): After four years, Ai Weiwei was reunited with his passport and will again be able to travel outside his country.
@Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz
Ferries leave from:
Pier 33 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94111
Through April 26, 2015. Book your ferry tickets in advance!
The de Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118
Although we couldn’t fit these gems in on this trip, they are some of our favorites and definitely worth a visit:
Pier 24 Photography
24 Pier The Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA 94105
Open M–F, by advance reservation only.
(currently under construction)
Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94103
The Museum of Craft and Design
2569 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA 94107
609 Hayes Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
560 Divisadero Street, San Francisco, CA 94117
661 Divisadero Street, San Francisco, CA 94117
Pier 5, Embarcadero Drive, San Francisco, CA 94105
1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94111
The Slanted Door
1 Ferry Building #3, San Francisco, CA 94111
Locanda Osteria + Bar
557 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
The St. Regis Hotel San Francisco
125 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA 94103
The Fairmont Heritage Place
Ghirardelli Square, 900 North Point Street, San Francisco, CA 94109
Captions: Meet Me in San Francisco art print by Laura Ruth