FREE, WE’RE ALL IN PRISON
In London, in the fall of 2012, the iconic British artist Sarah Lucas curated FREE, an exhibition of more than 190 works all realized by prisoners, by offenders, women, men, teenagers. FREE, an exhibition open for everybody (FREE entrance), was to be seen at the so-called “Palace of the People” in London, i.e., the Royal Festival Hall. I was privileged enough to visit her FREE exhibition with Sarah Lucas herself: around us, people looked at her, listened to her, with great attention, all as impressed as I was by the extraordinary mixture of power and sweetness, strength and fragility, superlative irony and attention to the other that irradiate from the artist.
“We are all in prison, says Sarah Lucas – which might be true and not true –our body is our first prison – and may be even more than our body, it is our brain that is a prison, our brain imprisons ourselves, our body – and to escape that particular prison we need to be very physical. I don’t know if there is “one freedom”, but I do live a free life. Freedom, for me, is time, it is the possibility for change without having to justify what I was before. I want to do things that interest me, and when the Koestler Trust asked me to be the curator of their show, I thought: In jail, the only freedom is the freedom of imagination, so let’s see, what they do with that freedom…”
Let’s see indeed. The Koestler Trust, a UK-based charity founded by Arthur Koestler, has been involved for more than fifty years in improving the life of prisoners through art. Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest from Jewish parents, became a journalist, a writer, traveled all over Europe and ended being a political prisoner. This experience gave him insight into the relationship between imprisonment and creativity, a relationship that he beautifully developed in his most famous novel, Darkness at Noon, of which Roubachov’s (the hero’s) story recalls that of Jacques Rossi. While this was one of Arthur Koestler’s major messages, the Koestler Trust, by asking Sarah Lucas to be the curator of this show, clearly stated that prisoners might live a better life thanks to art.
The title of the show, FREE, was chosen by Sarah Lucas. As the artist told me smiling, “nobody really would like to go into prison, isn’t it – so let’s rather look at freedom!” After a week taken to select the art (the UK offenders never had submitted so many works for any Koestler show), Sarah Lucas set up an installation that seemed “off frame”: the artist indeed wanted the art to look “free” by itself. There were many portraits, portraits as diverse as the people in jail and outside, as diverse as us; landscapes too; not many “sociological” works – those are usually made not by offenders but by those who watch them. Life in prison exits from the gazes of the painted faces, or may be enters, through these gazes. “While art offers the possibility of being respectably crazy, we do like to watch prisoners and what they produce : they act for us, then they pay for us, then we want to watch them, it’s very perverse…” concludes Sarah Lucas.
She makes me think of Jhafis Quintero, a Panama artist who experienced imprisonment. As Arthur Koestler turned his experience into writing, Quintero turned is own jail experience into more creativity. And on the basis of this experience, he also proposes tight comparisons between artists and criminals, art bearing the advantage, as Sarah Lucas also states, to express subversion in non-offending ways. Free art !
Published in Drome Magazine