Saturday 6 January 2018

Prison notebooks

Two parallel and equally interesting exhibitions about incarceration at the Ikon in Birmingham.

Thomas Bock trained in Birmingham as an engraver and miniature painter. In 1823 he was found guilty of 'administering concoctions of certain herbs ... with the intent to cause miscarriage'. Sentenced to transportation for 14 years, he arrived in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) where he was quickly pressed into service engraving bank notes. Once a respected artisan in his early 20s, with a good address in a booming industrial town, he now found himself at the edge of the known world in the company of compatriots who were as desperate as they were depraved.

Bock's artistic output is a rich seam of observation, at once subtle and astonishing. Most significant is his series of portraits of Tasmanian indigenous people, now in the British Museum. His fine drawings convey the tragedies suffered by the indigenous people through the British colonisation of Australia and as such, they amount to a memorial of these people who were dying out even as he painted and drew them. Most of all, his work is full of empathy for not only the indigenous people, but also for his fellow convicts.

Mithina (Mathinna), A Study of an Aboriginal Family, 1842, (watercolour)

Untitled, Wurati (Woureddy), 1831, (drawing, watercolour)

Interior View with Woman Sewing and Child at Right, 1840, (crayon with white lightings on tinted paper)

 Untitled, Youth Sitting, 1931-35

Untitled, Manalakina (Mannalargenna), 1831-35

Mithina (Mathinna), 1842, (watercolour)

Portrait of a Gentleman, 1850

One of the daguerreotypes in this exhibition - tiny mechanical images in silver plate, mounted and glazed in cases - depicting the kinds of people that Bock would have otherwise drawn or painted.

Edmund Clark is Ikon's artist in residence at Europe's only entirely therapeutic prison, HMP Grendon, in Buckinghamshire. This exhibition is the culmination of his residency. His work is shaped by his engagement with issues of censorship, security and control. He cannot make images that reveal the identity of the prisoners or details of the security infrastructure and so his response has been to create work that explores ideas of visibility, representation, trauma and self-image, showing how these lives are effectively censored.

A large, U-shaped structure

the size of a prison cell.

This structure displays pressed flowers. Clark uses the image of the flower throughout the exhibition to stand for the traditional photograph of the prisoner, a metaphor of how prisoners should be treated - much like a flower can grow and flourish in the right conditions.

Rectangular screens hang down from the ceiling and each one is playing a video that shows the inside and outside parameters of the prison building.

The last room of the exhibition projects blurred mugshots of black and white figures onto fabric interspersed by images of flowers. These projections hang from the ceiling allowing the viewer to walk among them as if they were people. The criminal here appears as an absence. Who are they really? This exhibition challenges us to re-evaluate what a prison should do.

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