Agenda, Documentary, Exhibitions, Fine Art, Interviews, Projects

Edmund Clark’s immersive study of prison life goes on show at the Ikon Gallery

Image © Edmund Clark, courtesy of Ikon Gallery

"We are a faceless, forgotten part of society," says one of the inmates at HMP Grendon, where Edmund Clark has been artist-in-residence for the last three years; his work at the prison is now going on show in Birmingham

“I hate myself because I am a murderer… You can’t save me… We are a faceless, forgotten part of society…” These are just some of the intimate, often devastating thoughts of the inmates at HMP Grendon, a category B men’s facility in Buckinghamshire and Europe’s only “wholly therapeutic” prison. Their words accompany My Shadow’s Reflection, a series informed by Edmund Clark’s artist-in-residence at Grendon, which forms part of his larger body of work, In Place of Hate, on show at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham from 06 December.

Clark, winner of BJP’s International Photography Award in 2009 and many more since, has long been interested in issues surrounding confinement and incarceration, having previously made work on Guantánamo, Bagram Air Base, control-order houses and elderly lifers at HMP Kingston. “The deprivation of liberty is a profound political act,” he says. “Why it is done, where it is done and how it is done are questions that reveal a great deal about the societies they represent.”

As an artist-in-residence for three years, the self-taught photographer immersed himself in prison life, working closely with inmates, wardens and therapeutic staff to create In Place of Hate, a multi-faceted series that, according to Ikon, “explores ideas of visibility, representation, trauma and self-image”, and how these influence the way in which prisoners and the criminal justice system are perceived in Britain today. The result is a thought-provoking, immersive installation consisting of a lightbox the size of a cell, multi-screen video displays, photography and elements from within the prison environment.

Image © Edmund Clark, courtesy of Ikon Gallery

My Shadow’s Reflection, a five-projector installation, forms part of the wider Grendon series and consists of three types of photograph: “Architectural images from around the prison, photographs of plant matter, and photographs of the men taken with a pinhole camera,” explains Clark.

The latter were made in a group setting: the men stood in front of the camera and answered questions about their past, the reasons why they are incarcerated and their prison experience. “Each exposure took about six minutes,” says Clark. “The men then responded to their image, sharing what they believe it says about them.”

“As a child I felt invisible,” writes one prisoner as a reaction. “Some men responded to what others may think of their image, and if it represents any aspect of their experience at Grendon,” explains Clark.

One prisoner reacted with: “For fuck’s sake, no wonder people look at me weird… I look like the white orc from The Hobbit.” Another commented: “I am terrified to take the mask off and feel vulnerable.”

Some of the men made interventions on the prints of their pinhole images by drawing, painting or writing on them, or in other ways, says Clark. Examples of these, together with a video of their words, will also be shown at Ikon. He also made photographs of, and with, prison officers and staff. In the exhibition space, these are projected onto pale green bed sheets slept in at Grendon.

Image © Edmund Clark, courtesy of Ikon Gallery

The photographs from My Shadow’s Reflection, plus pictures of plants and foliage grown within the perimeter fence, which Clark compressed between books and then photographed over a lightbox, together with shots of the prison’s architecture, the men’s own words and an artist’s statement, also comprise a book, co-published by Ikon and Here Press. Copies of it will be given to those who took part, and sent to decision-makers within the criminal justice system.

“I am very interested in how photographers, and artists in general, can make work about unseen experiences and processes of contemporary society,” explains Clark. “Issues concerning the deprivation of liberty and how the resulting experiences are represented by the detainer and the detained are relevant to my work.”

In Place of Hate is on show at Ikon Gallery from 06 December-11 March https://ikon-gallery.org/ http://www.herepress.org/publications/my-shadows-reflection/ https://www.edmundclark.com/ This article is included in the “Cool+Noteworthy” January 2018 issue of BJP, which is available via https://www.thebjpshop.com/