During the third writer development workshop at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, all the writers visited the current exhibitions at the gallery (‘In Place of Hate’ by Edmund Clark and ‘Thomas Bock’).
Frieze deputy editor Amy Sherlock led the workshop and asked the writers to file a 600-word review of one of the shows, written as if for the Frieze reviews section, which Sherlock edits.
Seven out of the eight writers chose to review the Edmund Clark show. Following feedback from Sherlock and a light edit, this is Cardiff-based Bob Gelsthorpe’s review of ‘In Place of Hate’.
Don’t worry about the fish, they don’t know any better. Imprisonment, represented by goldfish in an aquarium, is a tired anthropomorphism on show at the entrance to ‘In Place of Hate’, an exhibition by the British artist Edmund Clark. Placed on the gallery’s reception desk and hallways, Hantarex monitors, formally akin to a boxy fish tank, show five looped one-minute videos of fish circling a bowl. The gravity of this pithy visual metaphor is only stimulated on exiting the exhibition.
The works on Ikon’s second-floor galleries are a cultivation of the observer/ subject relationship. A lightbox traces the size of a cell at HMP Grendon, Europe’s only wholly therapeutic prison, and its title reflects the cell’s exact size: 1.98m²(2017). It feels small because it is small. Weeds, grasses and flowers found around the prison, between the barbed wire and brick, are lit on the lightbox which is waist-high like a vitrine.
The piece sidesteps any empty rhetoric about value structures, our interaction with the work addressing the issue of permission with brutal clarity: who has access to what space? The inmates at Grendon, despite its progressive approach, are still very much in detention. Their access to the natural detritus displayed in the lightbox is limited and so it is a choreographed image of detention itself – it shows the proximity and distance to a free life that inmates must constantly physically and mentally deal with.
Clark was artist-in-residence at Grendon for three years. Established in 1962 as a ‘democratic therapeutic community prison’, Grendon represents a shift in attitudes from championing the value of detention to investing in rehabilitation and understanding. Part of Clark’s residency involved him running art groups at the prison, always observing, as he states in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, “…the binary of the good and evil that afflicts the discussion of criminal justice…”.
The video installation Oresteia (2017) is formed of comfortable, low, blue seating arranged in a circle, just like any group therapy meeting – which is exactly what it is taken from. Three of the seats are occupied by more Hantarex monitors. Masked actors in psychodrama therapy present personalised versions of the Greek trilogy of plays that the title comes from, covering justice, revenge and never-ending cycles.
Two wall-mounted posters from Grendon are designed with intervention in mind. Untitled Diagram 2 (2017), shows a path of life in the style of a London tube map. It starts with either ‘Born strong’ or ‘Born vulnerable’ and ends in ‘Life’, ‘Lifelong personality disorder’ or ‘Suicide’. This visual representation of personality development pathways breaks the heart. Its place in this exhibition is an empathetic juggernaut.
All prisoners have consented to be in Oresteia, with their identity concealed. They even consented to be in Grendon as all inmates volunteer to be transferred there. But this final layer of consent – the filming – keeps throwing back difficult ethical questions. The deep complexity within the psychology of the offenders’ leaves me feeling somewhere between a participant and voyeur.
Clark rejects the binary perception of prisoners as good or bad, stable or unstable. Yet the opposing forces of inside/outside are rife throughout ‘In Place of Hate’; they clash and attempt to take into account the ethical complexities of incarceration itself. Addressing those complexities is what gives the exhibition its slippage, as opposed to its purpose. Just as in the personality development pathways poster, it is possible to deviate from a cycle. All it needs is total commitment and total attention – ‘In Place of Hate’ demands the same.
‘Edmund Clark: In Place of Hate’ continues at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham until 11 March 2018.