There are plenty of bad guys in society. They come in the form of the individual, the collective, even a construct or an action…the bad guy wears numerous hats. Of course, it sometimes depends on what side of the wall you’re on as to whether he is a hero or villain…or fellow inmate.
Because the wall that universally marks you out as the bad guy, as an enemy of the public, is the prison wall.
Parisian gallery Magda Danysz and Barbara Polla have taken on the controversy that surrounds the notion of imprisonment with the collective exhibition “Ennemi public”, raising questions about creativity in prison: What does the prisoner dream about? How does he express himself in confinement? What becomes of the man locked in his little box?
Jhafis Quintero’s haunting video explores the psychology behind prison isolation. The Panama-born artist uses his own experience of incarceration: filming himself swaying from side to side in front of a small hole in a concrete wall, clutching a handmade knife, parroting “We only exist when we communicate”. Uncomfortable but intrigued, I felt like a voyeur looking at the soft underbelly of the human shell.
Upstairs, Mat Collishaw’s photographs of former prisoner’s last meals line the wall like mug-shots. KFC chicken wings, lobster, tea, strawberries and boiled eggs are among the unusual food-pairings. It would be funny, if the elephant in the room wasn’t so grim.
Today’s public enemy is not just the man in jail. He hasn’t been caught or condemned yet. He might be spray-painting a public monument, or he might be abusing a position of power. VHILS (Alexandre Farto), for example, examines the concept of creating-through-destruction; his work involving a jackhammer and city walls. Through his artistic vision, the desire to retrace urban archeology, Farto is working in vandalism territory, breaking the law and so – by definition – he becomes the public enemy
I was particularly caught by “Joanna Malinowski, Letter to Obama, 2012”, an eloquent piece of prose in which Malinowski implores Obama to consider the Leonard Peltier case (a Native American activist incarcerated for the shooting of two FBI officers in 1975,) and to accept her gift of a pouch of tobacco: a reminder of pre-colonial history and what the writer considers Obama’s obligation to Native Americans.
“You are the living proof of change and once unimaginable possibilities, please consider the power bestowed on you to end the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier.”
I hope he writes back.
Overall, this exhibition has many powerful pieces, put together by a group of artists who have invested themselves both emotionally and physically in the work. Each piece is as much about the content it holds as the story behind its creation and the artist who produced it. Thankfully there is nothing cheaply sensational about the horrors of imprisonment, but rather the probing desire to know more about an experience that no man wishes for.