In Human Nature and Conduct (1922), American philosopher John Dewey writes, “By killing an evil-doer or shutting him up behind stone walls, we are enabled to forget both him and our part in creating him. Society excuses itself by laying the blame on the criminal.”1 In this statement, Dewey emphasizes society’s tendency to vilify the convict, an act which both absolves others from their role—indirect, institutional, or otherwise—in the creation of criminals, and effectively excludes the criminal from society.
Today there are over 200,000 people in federal prisons and over one million in state prisons in America.2 There are over 3,000 inmates on death row.3 These numbers represent a growing segment of the population, and the ramifications of this increase cannot be ignored. Yaelle Amir’s exhibition To Shoot a Kite features works that confront the abject state of the incarcerated.
In prison speak, “to shoot a kite” means to send a message. In this exhibition, the message is not a statement, it is a plea. It asks the viewer to pause for consideration of a growing, disaffected segment of the population. It asks the viewer to listen to the stories of incarceration of the innocent and guilty. And it asks the viewer to have compassion and be open to empathy. The works in To Shoot a Kite—consisting of artworks, community endeavors, and projects that combine the two—invite the viewer to approach the position of the inmate, whether on death row, in solitary, or with freedoms like access to classes, in order to sample the variety of experiences within the prison system.
None of the works in To Shoot a Kite present explicit images of prison conditions; instead, viewers are called upon to imagine this environment for themselves. Whereas works like Andy Warhol’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men (1964), a series of printed mug shots from the New York Police Department, revel in the titillation and possible celebrity of criminality, the pieces in To Shoot a Kite confront the humanism of lesser-known inmates through their own desires, needs, and aspirations. In this way, the exhibition evokes empathy for psychological reasons rather than physical suffering, and rejects a focus on the crimes—whether politically motivated and noble or extraordinarily horrific—in favor of attention to the individual. The viewer is given access to the prisoner’s imaginings of a different space or life and, in understanding the goals of the prisoner, comes to understand the prisoner’s present state.
Two Last Supper-related works in To Shoot a Kite effectively act as bookends for the exhibition. The first, Julie Green’s Last Supper, an ongoing project begun in 1999, presents images of the foodstuffs of last meal requests painted in blue on china plates. In cases where a prisoner refused the last meal, his or her final words are painted instead. These works refer to the memorial aspect of decorative plates and as such highlight these otherwise impersonal selections, which range from birthday cake to fried chicken. The focus on these choices hints at the background and preferences of the inmate. For many, the last meal is the only time their preferences will be heard by their jailors, and this is the final chance to revisit a childhood favorite or, in the case of the birthday cake, try a commonplace food for the first time, as indicated in the text on Green’s plate. These images create an unconventional portrait that describes both personality and condition, with no other physical or factual detail. Compare this to Dread Scott’s Lockdown series (2000-2004), in which the artist interviewed and photographed inmates, either while serving time or after their release, to create a more traditional style of portrait. Scott met with inmates, conveyed to them his opinions against the prison system, photographed them, and then conducted interviews about the subjects’ personal experiences that led to their incarceration. In sharp contrast to mug shots, these gelatin silver portraits show the prisoners in rare moments of relaxation. Scott succeeds in presenting these men as they’d like to be seen, and uses his camera as a tool to reveal an idealized self-image. The final portraits are displayed along with edited selections of audio from the interviews, allowing each subject the agency and platform to share his side of the story.
If Scott’s photographs ask us to see an inmate’s best self, or at the very least identify with a desire to present a best self, Jackie Sumell’s project The House that Herman Built (Herman’s House) shows a different, equally relatable idealization. Herman Wallace spent over forty years in solitary confinement in a six-by-nine-foot cell. Sumell and Wallace began a dialogue in the last decade of Wallace’s life, in which they designed Wallace’s dream house. The desire for a better living situation is universal; however, in Wallace’s case it speaks to deeper desires for freedom.
Wallace’s conviction was overturned three days before he died, making his story all the more heartrending. Whether the prisoner is innocent or guilty, the conditions of solitary confinement are horrifying, which is why projects like Supermax Subscriptions can be so powerful. This project, organized by Temporary Services, Tamms Year Ten, and Sarah Ross, asked volunteers to donate magazine subscriptions to inmates at Tamms, a supermax prison that closed in 2013, in which every inmate was in permanent solitary confinement. This simple act gave these isolated individuals a tether to the rest of the world; each article and picture evokes a sense of society and illuminates their dreams and imaginings of outside life at a time when their immediate world has shrunk to a small cell.
The power of imaginary space for prisoners is emphasized in works like Jennifer Egan’s novel The Keep. In the novel, an incarcerated protagonist named Ray is woken up by his cellmate, Davis, who is anxious to show him a box of rubbish that he claims is a radio. Ray thinks, “What if it actually does what Davis says? And in that split second I go from pretending straight into believing—it’s like all the pretending made me believe, except that doesn’t make sense, because pretending and believing are opposites. I don’t know what happens. Maybe it’s this place. Maybe if old fruit can be next week’s wine and a toothbrush can slit a throat…maybe a box of hair is a radio. Maybe in here it’s true.4
Egan strips down the condition of inmates, alluding to the resourcefulness that turns toiletry items into weapons and any available foodstuff into hooch, but also to a human need for agency that turns the act of imagining into an effort towards emotional freedom. In this episode, Egan reveals the impact of the introduction of possibility, even an imagined possibility, into a life of confinement. In a firmly limited real space, boundless imaginary space becomes all the more powerful, giving projects like Supermax Subscriptions and Herman’s House great significance.
This impact goes beyond the extremes of solitary confinement. Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project (P+NAP) offers arts and humanities classes to inmates at Statesville Prison, at a time when most state-funded prison education programs and libraries are being defunded. Ashley Hunt’s Corrections documentary provides a foil to P+NAP, as it addresses the increasing privatization of prisons and the results for both inmates and neighboring communities. Hunt’s research reveals that one in four black men is in prison, on parole, or probation, and new prisons are being built in rural communities with the argument that prisons create jobs and will revive depressed towns. This and other information Hunt pulls together shows the growing effects the prison system will have on society and presents the profit-driven motivations behind an increase in jails. In an exhibition that asks viewers to put themselves in the place of the individual inmate, this documentary casts a dark shadow by revealing that there are many for whom an inmate is just a number in a budget sheet, whose loss of freedom means greater profit.
If that’s a tough idea to swallow, imagine having to eat what you know will be your last meal. The other last supper piece in To Shoot a Kite, Lucky Pierre’s Final Meals (2003), asked volunteers to consume recreations of last meals culled from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s archive. In the resulting videos, these actors serve as avatars for both viewer and inmate, bridging the divide between them. With every bite, the actor must portray a confrontation with the appalling enormity of pending execution, and the viewer must play along in this grisly game. If we pause to allow the emotional impact to sink in, this meal and the circumstances around it become a gruesome ritual. If, as Dewey writes, society punishes criminals in order to alleviate the guilt of having created the circumstances of the criminal, then the Last Supper, solitary confinement, and other inventions of the justice system seem a gross form of torture. To Shoot a Kite asks this question and more, by presenting works that harness the power of imaginary space to convey very real problems.
1 John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology. Project Gutenberg EBook #41386, Nov. 17 2012 <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41386/41386-h/41386-h.htm> Accessed 01 April, 2014, 18.
2 Peter Wagner and Leah Sakala, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie,” Prison Policy Initiative, 12 March 2014 <http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie.html> (see page 12).
3 “Death Penalty: Death Row Population Size and Characteristics,” Death Penalty Focus, <http://www.deathpenalty.org/article.php?id=86> Accessed 01 April, 2014
4 Jennifer Egan, The Keep (New York: Anchor Books, 2006), 106.
This essay was written as part of the Young Art Critics Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. For additional arts-related writing, please visit on-verge.org.