A special protocol was announced at the early general meeting. As always, first the incidents from the nightshift were relayed and discussed – random threats noted including one inmate’s persistence to spit or urinate on the guards every time they made their rounds. Afterwards, the meal plans were reviewed and double-checked. On this morning the meeting ended by calling out the names of prisoners who were candidates to participate in this month’s installment of an art project, commissioned especially for the penitentiary. A year ago the prison had added on a new wing and refurbished its mess hall, which meant it was mandatory to reserve a certain percentage of the total construction budget for an artistic commission, whatever that meant. ‘Whatever that means’ is exactly what Walther thought when he heard about this rule for the first time. Since then - having been a guard for over twenty years - he had seen plenty examples of such commissions at the many prisons he had worked, and none impressed him much. Complicated sculptures that ended up derelict and/or decorative objects that pretended certain functionality but ultimately became a painful reminder of the lack of funds for a billiard table. The last prison he was stationed at had an artwork in the yard that was a full-scale city block, complete with an asphalt road, bus stop and lamppost with a working bicycle locked up to it. He didn’t understand why that was considered art, or why it had to be so cynical.
It was only his second month at this location and so the artistic commission, and what it involved exactly was new to him. The warden was explaining how it was detrimental that the inmates do not spend more than two hours at the worktables and that they do not get too close to the artist. It was going to be a woman this time, and the boss was insistent that you couldn’t be prepared enough for how the prisoners may react. In fact, supposedly she was quite a renowned artist Walther was told, which made it all the more important that everything was done by the book. She was famous for having made a portrait of the murderer of Theo van Gogh, which somehow amused Walther because he knew the guy, having worked in the prison where he was locked up. He made a note to himself to ask her if she had met him and done the portrait in person. But when she arrived and the whole project was set-up and had gotten started, he knew that this couldn’t be the case. In the new mess hall were two tables, with ten prisoners sat at each – two guards per table – and at the front of the hall the artist was sitting at a third table behind piles of neatly folded T-shirts, next to her a giant printing machine was continuously pressing down on one shirt at a time. On the prisoners tables were numerous books filled with illustrations of her work, along with magazines and newspaper clippings that she had used as images to make them. With all of this laying open, inevitably the prisoners started impersonating her style onto the T-shirts. Jokes flew back and forth
about the imagined value of these new works. The primitive grace of her female figures, their sexualized poses so neatly reminiscent of the women in the commercial magazine clippings were becoming more intangible with every prisoners brushstroke. The artist took it all in with great exuberance. She was studying the situation closely as if doing field research. Walther wanted to understand her fascination better so he picked one of her books to look through. He saw how her work had changed through the years – becoming evermore social and political - and he wondered if it were situations like this one that brought about this evolution. When he looked up again he saw that he wasn’t the only guard now involved. In fact all of them were sitting at the tables working on their own T-shirts, while the artist was walking around doing portraits of everyone, asking them what they were ‘in for’ and about the story of their lives. All the while the inmates happily produced T-shirts that approximated what her art should look like. Walther stood and took it all in and thought about the snake eating its own tail.
Text by Huib Haye van der Werf based on work by Cedar Lewisohn part of the show JAN VAN EYCK ARTISTS-IN-RESIDENCE & DAVID SALLE | LONG TING' (NO LONG TING')