Jan 23, 2012
With four new and seven returning installations filling the cellblocks, Eastern State presents most ambitious works to date
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site welcomes four new artists to its growing artist installation program and continues to feature many of the visitors’ favorite installations from previous years. In 2012 there will be 11 artist installations on view during all public hours, including new installations by Lisa Bateman, Tyler Held, Ryan Legassicke and Judith Schaechter. Artists are chosen for their ability to address Eastern State’s primary themes—including issues of crime and justice, architectural history, and the site’s fascinating past—with a memorable, thought-provoking approach.
To celebrate a new season of history exhibits and artist installations, the historic site will host a reception on Friday, May 11, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The public is welcome to attend, free of charge, for a chance to meet the artists and see the new exhibits. Light refreshments will be served.
New Installations for 2012 Season:
Lisa Bateman: Next Year
Inmates at Eastern State were originally denied reading material in their cells, with the exception of the Bible. The bound front pages of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania New Year’s day newspapers (or in some cases New Year’s eve papers) provide a timeline of the prison from 1829 through 1971 and of the missing realities, hopes, and dreams unavailable to the incarcerated. Visitors to the site are invited to inhabit the cell while reading the 142 ‘new years’ illuminated in the edition.
Tyler Held: Identity Control
Reflecting on the idea that a man is “too easily reduced to an object” when institutionalized, artist Tyler Held uses a car, stripped inside a cell, as a metaphor for relinquished individuality.
Ryan Legassicke: States of Security / Security States
This piece depicts full-scale silhouettes of barriers from around the world, including the Berlin Wall, the U.S./Mexico border fence, and three others, juxtaposed with the penitentiary’s outer wall. The artist hopes to encourage thinking about the use of walls and fences throughout history as a means of protection, security, and separation.
Judith Schaechter: The Battle of Carnival and Lent
Stained glass artist Judith Schaechter’s ambitious new work responds to the penitentiary’s narrow skylights and arched windows. The imagery, which she describes as “addressing in a non-religious way the psychological border territory between ‘spiritual aspiration’ and human suffering,” is evocative of theology but secular in purpose.
Greg Cowper: Specimen
This evolving collection of insects trapped within the walls of the penitentiary is displayed in a Cabinet of Curiosities, assembled from old prison doors, hardware, and the traditional method for amateur collections, cigar boxes. Cowper’s work is inspired by an article written by an entomologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences after a summer of 1889 visit to Eastern State. This visit included a chance encounter with an inmate who collected several rare species of moths and butterflies from his narrow, high-walled exercise yard.
William Cromar: GTMO
This cell is a recreation of a cell from Camp X-Ray, the now-abandoned holding cells in the United States Federal Detention Center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Department of Defense replaced the Camp X-Ray cells with newer holding cells, called Camp Delta, in 2002. By placing the Guantanamo Bay cell inside an Eastern State Penitentiary cell, Cromar illustrates “nearly polar-opposite means used to find a nearly equivalent end.”
Jordan Griska: Separate System
This unfinished steel sculpture wraps the interior of a prison cell and its furnishings like a cold, hard skin. The installation is exposed to and weathered by the elements so that it may resemble an obsolete, abandoned structure evocative of the penitentiary itself. Existing as both a positive form and a negative space, Separate System draws attention to inmates’ environments and invites visitors to reexamine the role of prison in society today.
Susan Hagen: Recollection Tableaux
Susan Hagen has created a series of historical dioramas consisting of 10 scenes from Eastern State’s history. The subjects include “Man in a Mask,” “Holiday Decorating,” “The Prison Band,” and “The Hole.” The figures stand about 11 inches tall and are displayed on simple pedestals inside the cells. Each scene is nearly monochromatic and is lit with theatrical lighting, presenting a striking contrast with the debris and clutter of the abandoned prison cell.
Michelle Handelman: Beware the Lily Law
This video projection uses the 1969 Stonewall Riots as a starting point to address issues facing gay and transgendered inmates. Visitors watching from inside the cell see three actors portraying inmates (projected on the wall), enacting the process of transforming their genders while sharing their characters’ stories of development, sexuality, and eventual imprisonment. Handelman developed these monologues based on the experiences of real men and women.
Alexa Hoyer: I Always Wanted to Go to Paris, France
Alexa Hoyer’s piece challenges visitors to reexamine their notion of prison life. Three televisions are placed in three different locations throughout the penitentiary: a prisoner's cell, a hallway, and a shower room. On each television, excerpts from over seven decades of prison film history are screened. The excerpts are chosen to relate specifically to the setting in which the television is placed.
Karen Schmidt: Cozy
This knitted sculpture is custom fit to three walls, the floor, and the furniture of a cell interior. Hand constructed in off-white and institutional green colored yarn, the installation encourages thinking about the notion of creating one’s own comfort, especially under challenging circumstances. There are a total of 419,879 stitches in Cozy (the bed alone is comprised of 41,998). The piece uses more than 25,000 yards of yarn.
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site
Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the world's first true "penitentiary," a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of convicts. Its vaulted, sky-lit cells once held many of America's most notorious criminals, including bank robber "Slick Willie" Sutton and Al Capone.
Tours today include the cellblocks, solitary punishment cells, Al Capone's Cell, and Death Row. A critically acclaimed series of artist installations is free with admission. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is located at 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue, just five blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $8 for students and children ages 7-12 (not recommended for children under the age of seven). The penitentiary is open every day, year round. April through November, admission includes “The Voices of Eastern State" Audio Tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. For more information and schedules, please call (215) 236-3300 or visit www.EasternState.org.
Artist installations are supported through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Arts programming is also made possible with funding from Eastern State’s Halloween fundraiser, Terror Behind the Walls.