Barrett, David, Art Monthly
Prison Bloomberg Space London March 31 to May 12
The day the exhibition opened, the Guardian led with 'UK headed for prison meltdown', noting that there was only room for four more prisoners. Days later, news came of a national, city-centre roll-out for loudspeaker-equipped CCTV cameras, which enable camera operators to issue instructions to citizens engaging in anti-social behaviour. So this is a timely exhibition. It is also ambitious--featuring over 20 artists--and at times sprawling, seemingly including any prison-related ephemera, such as film posters and board games. But if the show leaves intellectual threads dangling, it doesn't unravel because of them.
The modern prison is an institution where the only supposed punishment is a loss of liberty and whose raison d'etre is absolute control over its inmates. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the utilitarian philosopher so influential on prison design, claimed his panopticon jail pacified inmates simply by making them aware of the institution's 'invisible omniscience'. It is this unadulterated notion of power exercised through surveillance and knowledge that so fascinated Michel Foucault. And since--as Foucault pointed out--prison architecture is a direct expression of one aspect of society's will, it is enormously appealing to artists.
Designing a system of social control can lead to unrealistically abstract solutions, a point highlighted by Rita Donagh in her paintings of the infamous 'H-block' buildings of the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland--an architecture apparently reduced to symbolic code. Donagh emphasises this abstraction through her use of isometric perspective, which lacks perspectival foreshortening and gives the prison blocks a not-of-this-world quality. Juxtaposed against this mathematical precision are newspaper images of the furniture that prisoners smashed through cell windows into the courtyard. Evidently, these blocks are objects of the imperfect world after all, their repression leading to defiantly bodily expressions of resistance--'dirty protests' and hunger strikes.
Unsurprisingly, architecture is a major theme in the show. Langlands & Bell present their precise slice of Millbank Penitentiary, the Bentham-inpired jail the site of which is now occupied by Tate Britain. This flower-shaped prison was the result of line-of-sight considerations and displayed a paradoxical abstract beauty. The artists' interest in such dehumanising architecture connects back to Giovanni Battista Piranesi's famous etchings of imaginary prisons--one of which is included here--with their vast arches endlessly repeating and receding. It is easy to carry some of the thoughts these works inspire and apply them to the Bloomsberg building itself: imposing, oppressive, delirious with power.
Jane & Louise Wilson's sculpture appears to be an architectural fantasy, but it is disturbing precisely because we know that it is based on fact, as its title tells us: Reconstruction of Double Doors: Hohenschonhausen Prison, Stasi City, 1997. Doors that lead onto doors, padded on the inside, enclosing a space big enough for a person to hide--or perhaps be trapped--within. Although the purpose of the design is ambiguous, none of the uses we can imagine are pleasant, so the object remains deeply unsettling. Beltran Obregon also reveals threatening architecture: the artist flew a camera over a Colombian prison attached to a bunch of helium balloons, the symbol of childlike innocence and freedom used to capture images of adult incarceration. The resulting photographs, presented as a slide show, reveal strangely enclosed courtyards, where everything faces inwards. Poppy de Villeneuve's photographs challenge such a prison model. Her images show lakes and fishing piers, all in the confines of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a vast, 18,000-acre compound that is run as a working farm. One image shows undulating fields, freshly harvested, bales of hay dotting the landscape. …