By Joy Shannon
Prisons are often tucked away in rural communities and we rarely come in contact with them unless we or our families are directly affected by or involved in the criminal justice system. Even more rarely, do we as a society consider questioning the very nature of prisons themselves, why we build them and what we think about the members of our society that we put inside them. Are our prisons designed for punishment or rehabilitation? What are our cultural attitudes towards the incarcerated and how they should be treated?
The moving exhibition “Geographies of Detention: From Guantánamo to the Golden Gulag,” at University of California Riverside’s California Museum of Photography courageously examines these challenging questions about the U.S. and California’s prison industrial complex and our cultural attitudes towards detention, national security, torture and human rights. With the United States leading the world in the largest prison population at 2.3 million incarcerated and California ranking first in the nation’s prison spending at $10 billion per annum, these are questions that need to be asked.
This timely exhibit is up while current prisoner hunger strikes at both Guantánamo Bay and California’s Pelican Bay State Prison—in protest of prison conditions—highlight the need for reforms. Immediately upon entering the exhibition, one is struck by the imagery of Poppies/Amapolas, an aquatint by Fernando Marti, which eloquently makes a statement about California’s prison population by placing a field of prisoners in orange jumpsuits, next to a field of orange California poppies.
Superbly curated by UCR professors Catherine Gudis and Molly McGarry and students in UCR’s Public History program, this exhibit makes thoughtful use of the museum’s sleek industrial design. Housed in the vast downstairs space is the pictorial work of Sandow Birk, Alyse Emdur, Richard Ross, all of which depict the structural landscapes of prisons. Their work not only addresses the walls and physical restraints, but also the societal restraints that hold prisoners inside. Birk’s work utilizes the aesthetic of romantic California landscape painting and the ideals of Manifest Destiny and the American Dream. Yet within these glorious and expansive landscapes that speak of freedom, Birk has painted the structures of the prisons that dot the rural Californian landscape, from Pelican Bay State Prison at the Oregon border to Centinela State Prison at the U.S. -Mexico border.
While Birk’s work views prisons from afar, Richard Ross’ work goes within the walls of the prisons themselves and depicts the bars, walls, and cages designed to keep people in- all depicted without humans, giving them a ghostly, lonely and claustrophobic feel. Joining striking images of shockingly inhumane outdoor holding cells at Abu Ghraib, caged shower stalls at Guantánamo and a booking room in downtown Los Angeles, it all tellingly begins to feel and look the same.
Alyse Emdur’s installation Prison Landscapes focuses on the prison tradition of prisoners being photographed in front of painted mural backdrops. Often depicting whimsical subject matter from castles to forests, these murals are the one place prisoners are allowed to be photographed during their incarceration. Emdur expands her view of these murals to show the institutional architecture that surrounds them. This work not only examines how prisoners represent themselves in these photographs, but also through personal correspondence with the prisoners themselves. Several emotionally moving letters from inmates were on display with these photographs, bringing the individual human voices to the museum exhibit. Remarkably, Emdur was able to coordinate getting one of the prison murals, a forest scene by artist Darrell Van Mastrigt, out of the prison and on display in this exhibition.
Venture up a metal spiral staircase and one finds two fascinating documentaries, A Prison in the Fields by Ashley Hunt and Visions of Abolition by Setsu Shigematsu, playing in the dark. A Prison in the Fields examines why prisons get built in remote rural communities by following activists attempting to prevent a second prison from being built in Delano, CA. Visions of Abolition focuses on women caught in the criminal justice system and features compelling interviews with scholars and organizers of the prison abolition movement.
Upstairs one finds a metal bridge that spans the entirety of the museum space; from there, looking down upon the work of Birk, Emdur and Ross, one can almost feel the presence of the inmates themselves. This exhibition boldly asks questions about an issue in our society we would prefer to put away and forget about, but after seeing this work, one will never forget.
“Geographies of Detention: From Guantánamo to the Golden Gulag,” at University of California Riverside’s California Museum of Photography, 3824 Main St., Riverside. (951) 827-4787; artsblock.ucr.edu. Admission $3; students w/ID are free.