In Place of Hate at Ikon gallery is the culmination of Edmund Clark’s three-year residency at HMP Grendon, Europe’s only wholly therapeutic prison. Making use of film and photography, Clark presents a series of interconnected rooms that have an institutional echo. The gallery space feels like a prison in which the prisoners are absent; where they appear in the work their identities have been obscured. In Clark’s work, the act of transgression is felt but not seen, making it possible to consider the courage and determination required of prisoners who are taken apart and put back together again within Grendon’s therapeutic community.
Providing structured community living where members are encouraged to share responsibility for democratic decision-making and day to day problem solving, Grendon’s therapeutic community focuses on rehabilitation through self reflection. Prisoners voluntarily apply to be transferred to Grendon where, following an initial assessment period, they participate in group therapy, art therapy and psychodrama. Further involvement in the arts is encouraged within the community through additional artist residencies, music or theatre projects run by visiting artists such as Clark, who provide an external link beyond the prison system.
The first of Clark’s works is titled ‘1.98²’ (2017), a white table-high light box made to the dimensions of a prisoners cell. The space that the prisoner would inhabit is empty. Instead, translucent leaves and delicately veined flower heads have been pressed, dried and laid out with clinical precision so that every fine wrinkle and curled petal is highlighted. These plants have been gathered by Clark from the prison’s grounds and pressed between sheets of paper towel in his office. Some are plants cultivated by prisoners who have opted to tend the therapeutic garden as one of their chosen responsibilities, others are weeds that have flourished between overlooked cracks in the paving, a reminder of nature’s ability to regenerate, even in the most inhospitable of environments.
According to Clark, ‘why we lock people up, how we do it and where we do it offer a profound insight into our society.’ At Grendon, prisoners are supported to look at themselves and reflect on their treatment of others, often, for many, for the first time in their lives. The largest, vaulted room of the exhibition houses ‘My Shadow’s Reflection’ (2017), a series of pallid green prison sheets on which magnified photographs of plant specimens are projected to appear as they would in a book of botanical samples. Jonathan Watkins, director of Ikon Gallery, links Clark’s use of plants with Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898). Incarcerated for two years after being convicted of sodomy, Wilde was outspokenly critical of the vicious cycle of conventional crime and punishment of the 19th century penal system, noting that ‘The vilest deeds, like poison weeds Bloom well in prison air.’
Juxtaposed with the enlarged projections of dead weeds and flowers are portraits Clark has taken of Grendon’s inmates using a pinhole camera. In contrast to the hyper-real projections of the botanical specimens, the prisoners’ faces are blurry and indistinct. Here, as elsewhere throughout the exhibition, their identities have been obscured in line with British prison censorship rules. Though living, these men are presented as ghostly auras, as though they have passed into a twilight realm, visible to the professional staff working with them, but depersonalised, dehumanised and invisible to the public. After taking these portraits, Clark returned them to the prisoners for consideration. One prisoner quoted Plato’s Republic:
I’m an object. I used to see the public not as my people but as my enemy. Not in my tribe. Not in my cave. Now that I’m a criminal this is how the public sees me. ‘They see only their own shadows or the shadows of one another.’
Their responses to Clark’s portraits are mixed. One sees a warm force of human energy radiating from his body, while another identifies the faces of his victims mirrored in his own. Hanging like becalmed sails, the sheets that bear these projected images once lay beneath prisoners while their dreams and anxieties were sweated out in the ‘hard lock up’ of the night. According to Liz McLure, a psychotherapist who worked at Grendon for 12 years, understanding and acknowledging responsibility for their offences comes at a price:
They know that they are no better than their own perpetrators. This feeds guilt and shame and they run the risk of wanting to kill the bad object, the self, totally.
The journey of rehabilitation is fraught with peril. ‘Untitled Diagram 2’ (2017) a framed chart on the wall at the centre of the exhibition displays a mass of coloured lines and corresponding intersections that look like a tube map. This is a clinical development diagram borrowed from one of Grendon’s walls. Labelled ‘Personal Development Pathways 2011,’ its tangled routes lead to three ultimate destinations: life, suicide or lifelong personality disorder via stations such as ‘bullying’, ‘remorselessness’ and ‘alienation.’ The thought of passengers hurtling through these dark tunnels towards salvation or damnation is an uncomfortably literal metaphor for the struggle between free will and fate.
In the same room, a circle of chairs is arranged as though a group therapy session has just taken place. Titled ‘Orestia,’ (2017) this work takes its name from a trilogy of Greek tragedies in which a cycle of murder and revenge is perpetrated through generations of a family, blood being paid for with blood. Perched on chairs, cube monitors display a filmed, psychodrama response to The Orestia in which prisoners and supervising staff act behind masks, identifying with victim or perpetrator, or acting as members of the chorus. An underlying metaphor throughout the trilogy is the transition from tyranny to democracy; justice through personal vendetta and revenge is eventually replaced with justice administered by a modern democratic society through trial, freeing Orestes from the cycle of violence.
According to Jamie Bennett, Governor at HMP Grendon, ‘the deliberate use of high art and serving prisoners, who are considered to be amongst the lowest status people in society, provokes consideration of representation and social power.’ Founded in 1962 against a backdrop of socially progressive ideals and optimism, the rehabilitative approach Grendon offers couldn’t be more different from Wilde’s experience. Bennett explains that ‘the creative therapies use arts not so as to produce artefacts or exhibits. Instead the medium is used to communicate, explore and understand individual thinking.’
Treating as artefacts the sheets Grendon’s inmates have slept upon, and the chairs upon which they sit, seems at odds with the rehabilitative objectives of creative therapies used at Grendon. However, the power of photography to humanise or dehumanise its subjects is wielded by Cark with compassion. His works often provide symbolic opportunities for redemption, as in ‘Orestia’. Oscar Wilde ended his ballad with the observation ‘for each man kills the thing he loves/ yet each man does not die’, hinting at the arbitrary circumstances that shape a life of crime and violence and the open possibilities—positive or negative—offered by existence beyond the act of transgression. How visitors interpret Clark’s images surely depends on how they interpret the expanding role of imprisonment as a form of social control, and what they see in the shadow of their own reflection.
Jessica Ramm is an artist and writer based in Glasgow. She currently works at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop and writes for The List.