F R E E (Prisons 2)

While we’re on prisons, the other weekend I met my mum, Jackie and my aunt, Sandra for a cup of coffee in the Royal Festival Hall. Just for fun the authorities have reduced the number of chairs and tables there by about half which isn’t really relevant here apart from in the way that someone in charge was nonetheless somewhere having a kind of laugh at everyone who wanted to sit down, like the laugh that More Power has at None, or at anyone for that matter subjected against their will and by necessity to the minor expression of More Power’s petty sadism, including that of criminals, penal or cultural institutions, like for example when one buys balcony tickets in British theatres to feel that the physical pain and/or sensory deprivation we experience when we sit there are nothing less than deserved. Nonetheless and aptly, at the RFH first we were outside, then we were inside (because it got cold). Then we were about to leave but it had started to rain. So we were trapped.

Jackie and Sandra were at the RFH because they’d been to see the exhibition F R E E CURATED BY SARAH LUCAS (by SARAH LUCAS the brand, not just a person with that name in the way anyone has a name). F R E E  is a ‘showcase’ (yep) of ‘art by offenders, secure patients & detainees’ (i.e. the NOT-F R E E-AT ALL?) organised by the Koestler Trust, where visitors (who I can only think the exhibition’s title wants us to imagine are themselves The Free being referred to. Ha. Wishful thinking.) have the very freedom to vote on their favourite of the works that Sarah (The Most Free) has pre-selected (because The Public/Free ought to be able to judge the Not-Free, after Sarah has of course, because The Public are after all better positioned to do so than the other way round for example, although not as better positioned as Sarah, all of which stands to REASON), and the maker will receive a special award in addition to the ones already distributed by the Trust. That must feel nice, to be in prison and to win a prize. And not to win a prize? Culture. Is it any wonder most of the entries are titled works whose makers share the name Anon?

In previous years this annual exhibition was curated by GROUPS of individuals “with a close connection to the criminal justice system” (young people from Lambeth Youth Offending Scheme; female prisoners… etc.). But this year is special. Our Trust is 50 so the show is curated by a SINGLE individual, SARAH LUCAS [cue photo of Sarah looking pensive in a room heaped with Arts Stuff. Hold your chin with your hand, Sarah. Look down as if you are considering.]. Kudos. If any of this is sounding tainted so far I’m really not doing that much more than re-twitting the accompanying booklet as Jackie, Sandra and I are deciding to go and see the show (for them, again), to do time until it stops raining outside (I was already ranting).

So that’s what we did, stumbling onto the tail end of a free exhibition tour I think lead by one of the ‘ex-offender interns [really real ex-offenders??! Really? Anyone for a nineteenth century World Fair?], all of whom are aged older than the Koestler Trust. Specially recruited… and trained… [for the exhibition, to] challenge the assumption that internships are for youngsters, [quite right, that’s just the sort of assumption that it is imperative for us to challenge] prey upon the older and already also widely reported as discriminated against and help give a voice provide cheap labour to prisonsers aged over 50 a self-congratulatory arts project despite its best intentions.’ [italics – my insertions, obviously]. I couldn’t stop to listen because my ears were too agog with what my eyes and then my mouth were taking in and pushing out, a kind of bodily convulsion/repulsion at being again cast in somewhere I didn’t want to be, in the theatre of this theme park.

Whether or not she’d chosen the colour of the walls (prison grey) or the carpet (a mustard that convinced no-one of sunshine), there were two things that Sarah did for sure introduce to the display: white ceramic toilet bowls, some just empty placed alongside/in between works, some as the support/display structure for selected paintings that spring out of or are being sucked in (either way like waste) to them on the end of coiled metal strips. This is what they looked like:

and grey breezeblocks that formed a kind of post-Andre plinth-on-a-plinth platform:

and a wall:

The painting displayed on this wall is called ‘Hope’:

I guess there’s always been something like a revelling in just such a collapse that this kind of gimmick suggests in Sarah’s own artwork but there, in her work, to me it is often astute, funny, belligerent, accurate – not so much an end of language but something more blatant and also complex to the extent that language just doesn’t feel so necessary/useful/worth it. An upfront-ness that is an undone-ness. But the point is that F R E E  isn’t an artwork. Sure, the checks and balances of curatorial decisions can be as plastic as we like, but…

On the video documentary in the exhibition where Sarah describes her “process” (not so dissimilar from the selection of favourites after all) she says that the breezeblocks and toilets are things she always uses in her artwork. So that while some visitors to the exhibition (like me) might think they refer to the construction of a prison theme décor, they are being a bit stupid and reducing them to one-liners, because actually they are not one-liners, because, well, because she always uses them in her artworks (none of which are here). That’s alright then. Oh, Sarah.

Just because an artwork can be the site of a strategic ‘lapse’ of judgement of the most disgusting/liberating kind, when you think that art is life or the permission to behave in such a sloppy way to the work of others then it is just a belligerence, nothing more than privilege. But maybe you’re right Sarah – I am simple, and F R E E  is actually incredibly clever, because what occurs there is a nasty, insidious kind of inversion. It constructs the visitor as a character who you, Sarah, want us to be while having a laugh at us for being so. What really are you giving to who and who in relation to yourself? Ticketty-tip-toe down the prison corridor, la-di-da a lovely Sunday on the South Bank. “Look at the little things that those have made who live in grey corridors and know breezeblocks as something other than material for an artwork. Oh I can just imagine. It makes me think of little Munchins all busy busy in their little cells. Cheeky little potters. Lovely. I don’t know why, I just like it.” Of course it wouldn’t be surprising if one of these characters moving around the exhibition would say, “Look at that”:

“Who’d’ve thought that someone in prison could make THAT?” Meaning, it’s really good (‘good’). Which actually didn’t make me laugh but made me really angry and I wondered why the-person-in-prison is not us, or, me. Or could as easily be me as anyone else. Why not? It could be. And what might I make? Well, ‘why not’ here, in this show, is specifically because the prisoner-artists are also cast, they are also characters, definitely Not-Me’s, subhuman, elsewhere, subjectless, encased, as in incarcerated, as figuratively as literally. And so I said to Jackie and Sandra “Maybe [the reason why such a thing could be made is because] all artists are now in prison. That is where they all are.” By which I meant that none of us are not in prison.

F R E E ‘s construction of the visitor-as-character is a gross mediation, the smug rhetoric of this F R E E  and of all frees. As such it is a total misrecognition of what is actually brilliant in the artworks on display, which might generally be seen as a rebuttal, a refusal, a disregard of the standard kinds of mediation that otherwise condition artistic production and its associated economies that make ‘Sarah Lucas’s into brands rather than people and that of course are, by necessity and display reinscribed here by not much more than the holding power of Blu Tack or parcel tape made into a loop and used sparingly.

Right now, I couldn’t care less about fighting any kind of art-ethical war over these things, about art as social work, rehabilitation, the ignorant lauding of personal expression or whatever else and all the fucked-up other lies the framing of this show spews in which you have more than a part and that ought to be stopped by the mark of respect on a common ground. You can get on with it. I can’t be bothered/haven’t got time. What’s important to me is what there might be of use in all of this.

In the same way, two days ago I looked for something of what was advertised in Tate Modern’s Collection Displays: ‘Energy and Progress’; ‘Structure and Clarity’. I’d like to say I found none of these things there because the idea that I was really looking for them is pretty funny, but that really wouldn’t be true. I found again for the first time in years Matisse’s late collage The Snail, 1953:

At school I scoffed and mocked this picture as if it were nothing. But now I don’t. The story its wall text tells is much the same as the one I remember: ‘Confined to bed through illness, [Matisse] had assistants paint sheets of paper in gouache which he then cut. [Which was the only thing he could do because his hands were so mangled with arthritis]. The shell of a snail inspired [‘inspired’? really?!, ‘inspired’?! Oh, please] the spiralling arrangement… “I have attained a form filtered to its essentials” {Matisse] remarked.’ Oh right – ‘essential’ – to….? But what clicked two days ago with what I am writing, its answer-without-a-question, was/is that in this picture it is Matisse’s INability that we are looking at, and that also it cannot be seen by the institution without qualifying the work as ‘inspired’ (plain stupid: what isn’t, then, or what is and when do You decide it is so?) and in the artist’s own words as ‘essential.’ And this says more to me about who the institution(s) (museum/artist) want the viewer/reader to be than it does about anything like what this picture could mean – and by implication, who I do not want this person to be, who I do not want to be and where I might find meaning. Which is to say that there might be something to be said for something I’ve started already to say more often: that from this, ignoring all this other stuff, I propose regardless to take the thought that snares me, that


Is to be in prison to be a player, in a play, a patient on a hospital bed, a player to players, the condition of this/my condition? In one way perhaps I am in a kind of prison defined by a particular kind of theatre, but there is a way out from it that I would prefer, different to the way where oneself is left behind, somewhere (i.e. escape/ism). This way out is not found in F R E E , which is really, precisely about this opposite and is not only made so by an act of reading, but by money, of course: F R E E  is supported by The Co-operative and ‘The Co-operative’s support for art and other offender rehabilitation projects has changed the lives and direction of a significant number of offenders…’:

Visitor:      Oh really, in what direction has this change occurred?

Booklet:   …[The Co-operative’s support] has contributed to a reduction in reoffending.

Visitor:      Oh good. That makes me feel nice about myself and all the non-offending values by which I already do and will continue to live, as if I have done this self-validating work too by coming to see the exhibition. Thank you very much.

This other escape that I think might be there or here may be no less of a fiction (because it is written), but it is urgent and hangs upon what this writing might in the end get to/be getting at, to be read as, do[?]: to be a description, a model for use, to work, of another particular kind of theatre that I have still to understand (even if it is nothing new) and still to write for myself. Of, but finally not to be described as a set of ‘no’s’ or ‘nots’, because what there is to be jubilant about is that limit is everyone’s material and it is always here. And this is where to start.

Points of information

1. Sorry this is a long one. Harry came to visit last week, which was great – he is my metronome – but obviously what there is to say built up.

2. For an absolutely excellent alternative way of organising exhibitions like F R E E  you might want to check the catalogue/evidence of ‘Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis’ which was at the Hayward Gallery in the old days, Dec 1996-Mar 1997.

3. I am now pretty much bald. I don’t mind it and once I’m past the slightly patchy ostrich fuzz it’ll work just fine, but I know that there’s a moment of digestion for some the first time they see it. Take this as prior..

4. A return to a little bit of GORMLEY’S BALLS and more of BAMBI L. THE STUDENT DOCTOR in the next post, I promise.


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