Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration
On ViewMoMA PS1
September 17, 2020 – April 4, 2021
Queens, New York
“Have you ever suffered from political despair, from despair about the organization of things? What does it mean to suffer from political despair when your identity is bound up with utopian political aspirations and desires?” — Fred Moten
To what degree can a body disappear without dying? What amount of time engenders the slow dismembering of identity, the desaturation of existence, and the decontextualization of a life? In the United States, we supply many ways and build many institutions to aid in the slow paring away of personhood, death without death. Our current existence could be described as mucking through the quicksand in which neoliberal policies have mired us since the 1980s, resulting in the insidious chipping away at safety nets such as welfare, education, and social security. Neoliberalism held these public goods up to business standards of profit. That these entities could not do so resulted in their defunding and gradual obsolescence, both economically and ideologically. Within the privatized carceral systems, bodies are stacked and grouped, numbered, and expunged. These systems become closed and unscrutinized loops of slow erasure, a self-consuming cycle that holds lives long after bodies are released.
Throughout Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, we can see artists, some currently incarcerated, emerging from this indeterminacy, indicating and reconfiguring an existence in constant threat of being snuffed out. It is the artists’ utilization of whatever is at reach—even if it means scribbling on the materials of the hegemonic structures that contain them—that simultaneously acts as a marker of personhood and an investment in futurity. Stepping into the dazzling panoramic that is Jesse Krimes’s Apokaluptein 16389067 (2010-13), we see the artist slowly and painstakingly acting as both witness and cartographer of his situation. Using hair gel and a spoon, Krimes samples visual media from New York Times’ Magazines and rubs them onto a make-do canvas of 39 prison bedsheets, a piece which took him three years to extricate from Fairton prison. This is a process of world-creation, an insistence on the traces of a body despite its existence within institutions that do all they can to efface it.
In her book Listening to Images, Tina Campt delineates the idea of Black futurity being intrinsically tied to motility: “a quotidian practice of refusing to stay put or to stay in their designated place.” For many of the artists in the show, utilizing the materials available within the confines of prison is borne out of necessity. Federal Prison Inmate Activity Book, a collaboration between Daniel McCarthy Clifford and a current inmate who requested anonymity, finds the artists engaging in the formal “safety” of a composition book. Embedded in the harmless crosswords, prison slang, and humor are messages of resistance to dominant narratives.
In another corner, the two-channel video, Ashes Ashes by Ashley Hunt gives cinematic form to the past and future of prison infrastructure. Rikers, situated between the Bronx and Queens, occupies a stateless state: a system enforced through its deliberate impermeability, a liminal space, at odds with the busy metropolis that is New York City. Hunt’s videos ruminate upon the 2026 scheduled end of Rikers, a non-linear mapping of the history seeped into its tainted ground so as to excavate a hope of abolition. In this way, Hunt treats as malleable the conditions of oppression that oftentimes feel permanent, and leans into a distant, yet fixed indeterminacy that promises celebratory emancipation.
In Phyrric Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration (2014–present), approximately 600 inmate portraits line the walls, simultaneously embodying the cube-like constraint of the gallery and providing windows into the forgotten spaces of personhood. The artist, Mark Loughney, disrupts the indexicality of state-foisted photo identifications; representation flees to the traditional media of graphite, settling into incisive, tender portraiture that illumes faces beholden to the prison industrial complex. In setting a time limit of 20 minutes per portrait, Loughney organizes a visual and haptic marker of temporality in prison in which time can feel cruelly arbitrary. His is an anthropological categorization where the formal attention to the portraits bespeaks a generosity that can only come from the artist seeing himself in his subjects.
Throughout the exhibition, portraits abound, embodying defiance of a stagnant and captured identity, while surfacing bodies, faces, and narratives that have historically been buried. In George Anthony Morton’s portrait Mars (2016), the artist both reckons with the Old Masters as a way of passing time and simultaneously positions underrepresented personages in the narrative of classical art that is indisputably dominated by Eurocentric artists. Through classical art, Morton works in grayscale, shading into visibility those who are purposefully hidden, and positions the subject in the art-historical canon of the European-dominated field of portraiture.
Locked in a Dark Calm (2016), a startling self-portrait by Tameca Cole, locks the viewer into the struggle that is individuation amidst an institution slowly ebbing away from the distinctive features of personhood. Collaged fragments of a face hold the viewer both complicit and accountable in their seeing, the colored fractals either surfacing from or being subsumed into the grey waters of graphite. Various pairs of eyes of portraits follow me as I leave the exhibition. There is much work to be done, and my resonance with the art I have seen comes in concurrence with a discomfort that some of its makers are still incarcerated. What Marking Time has achieved, with help by its capable curator, Dr. Fleetwood, is not something reactionary or inert, and isn’t merely a show, but an ongoing practice of accountability, refusal, and celebration.