Surprising new installations at Eastern State Penitentiary

If you’ve never been to Eastern State Penitentiary go this summer. Not only does the historic Dickens-era prison continue to look like the glorious decayed wreck it is, but the cellblocks are cool on a hot summer day. Long past is the time when hard hats were required, and this year’s four new art installations in the cells are terrific, and surprising.

Michelle Handelman. Beware the Lily Law. Photo by Laure Leber

Perhaps the biggest surprise is filmmaker Michelle Handelman’s “Beware the Lily Law,” a video projection onto a cell wall of actors portraying prisoners jailed after the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York. The gay and transgendered men and women speak about being abused when they were jailed; a transgender man tells of feeling completely out of place in the women’s prison he’s in. The way Handelman’s video is projected on the wall makes it seem like these people are hallucinations beamed in from the past. The ethereality is effective in suggesting a haunted past. And these real life stories convey the sense of urgency, for transgender individuals are still housed inappropriately today, and often, for their own safety, in protective custody, the equivalent of solitary confinement.

Jordan Griska: Separate System, photo by the artist

With its hard-edged, machine-tooled, factory-produced affect, Jordan Griska’s “Separate System” is as different from Handelman’s as night and day. Griska’s one ton steel installation, which clads the cell interior with aggressive accordian-pleated metal, speaks of industry and manufacturing and I kept thinking of America’s prison industry today in which more than 3.1% of U.S. adults are in the prison/parole/probation system at a huge cost to the government, much of the money going to private corporations that run privatized prisons on contract.  It’s an unstoppable big business as hard-edged and impersonal as this installation. Griska’s eerie steel cage is highly cinematic–a mashup of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with its sense of machinery (and society) gone bezerk and the sci-fi horror movie Alien. I want to say Piranesi’s imagined prison drawings come to mind, also, for their suggestion of hellishness wed to amazing design.


Speaking of industry, this work — and the other 2011 installations — took a lot of artistic industry. Marvels of craft and passion, the installations are amazing for temporary site-specific works that will appear for a season or two or three and then be gone.

Greg Cowper: Specimen. Photo by the artist

Greg Cowper delves into the natural history of the prison in his museum-like installation, “Specimen.” Cowper, who is a Curatorial Assistant at the Academy of Natural Sciences, has filled some hand-made specimen cabinets with insects, rodents and birds found on prison grounds — all numbered and labeled like a veritable museum collection.  The work refers back to an 1889 collection begun by a prisoner at Eastern State and expanded on by an1889-era entomologist at the Academy. Cowper sees his project as carrying forward the research–he’ll be adding to the collection the whole time it’s up.

The cabinets have an ancient look to them that’s perfect for the cell — metal cabinets with peeling paint, or old old wood. A set of flat files is built of rusty old cell doors from Holmesburg Prison–doors that are similar to the ones at Eastern State, according to ESP’s Sean Kelly who took me and my friend Ann on a tour.  Michael S. Beers fabricated the cabinet as well as the other parts of the exhibit.

Karen Schmidt: Cozy. Photo by Sandy Sorlien

Karen Schmidt’s “Cozy” covers the cell in off-white and green knitting–a cell cozy. Nothing cozy about it. Schmidt says in her statement that knitting reflects the passage of time. Time passes with the click of the needles and with each stitch.  Stitches are like tick marks on a wall to cross off days served in prison. There are a total of 419,879 stitches from more than 25,000 yards of yarn.

ESP has always been a fantastic site for art, both years ago when the place was just coming out of abandonment and was an almost complete wreck, and now when it’s been taken care of and made safe but not pristine. Some years the art projects are stronger than other years.  This year is really good–don’t miss it. Open now through 2011.  Other hold-over installations from other years include those by Susan Hagen, Linda Brenner, Bill Morrison and Vijay Iyer, James Mills, William Cromar and Alexa Hoyer. Check out my photo set at flickr.  And check out the ESP website, which is full of wonderful additional information — about the site and about the art and artists.