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Northstar Gallery

Eastern State Penitentiary

Artist Commentary

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia PA

 

 

EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY 

ARTIST COMMENTARY

SEPULCHER


A visit to Eastern State Penitentiary is a very powerful and moving experience. More than any other institution I have visited, you can feel the presence of the individuals who lived their lives in the 8x12 foot cells of Eastern.

Eastern State Penitentiary embodied Quaker ideals about the nature of man and the redemptive powers of solitary reflection and penitence.  The Visionaries of Eastern State believed that solitary confinement would heal the soul and allow time and opportunity to reflect on a life of crime and to repent of past sins.  Within the controlled environment, it was believed that prisoner's would be able to reform themselves through solitude, work and penance, thus the new name for America's prisons; penitentiary. After being interviewed and given prison clothes, the new convict was taken, with a hood placed over his head, to his or her cell. Charles Dickens, later described this hood, used to mask the identity of the prisoners, as a "dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world." 

Inmates at Eastern State Penitentiary were permitted no contact with family or friends and no news of events outside the prison. 

An 1831 report explained: "No prisoner is seen by another, after he enters the wall. When the years of his confinement have passed, his old associates in crime will be scattered over the earth, or in the grave...and the prisoner can go forth into a new and industrious life, where his previous deeds are unknown." 

Advocates of the Pennsylvania System saw it as transforming a criminal calling into a religious calling a true conversion of the sinner into saint. When Dickens visited Eastern he called the system was infernal, precisely because of its reliance on the unseen. Prisoners were invisible to each other and to the world. There were no scars and the effect of isolation could not be observed. Dickens thought public floggings preferable to this "slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain."   

Over the last several years one of my major projects has been photographing memorial art from around the World including, Italy, France and Russia. Upon looking at my first images of Eastern, I was struck to realize that these images were also photographs of graves. It became very clear that Eastern's  cells were sepulchers - "burial vaults or receptacles for sacred relics - an alter". Indeed the Quaker philosophy at theCell Eastern State Penitentiary foundation of Eastern and the Pennsylvania Plan was for the prisoner to die to self and be reborn again free of past sin. Each cell was designed with  a sky light that served as the "Eye of God" an ever present alter offering the promise of redemption and salvation. The prisoners were a living symbol and often a sacrifice to a philosophical belief. As observed by Dickens, the isolation imposed by the Eastern State philosophy created an underground where Young boy living in the underground of Bucharest Romaniathe lives of the inmates were invisible to the rest of society. I had first experienced this reality when visiting children living in the sewers and the underground of Bucharest Romania. Like the children of Bucharest the reality of the lives of the people living at Eastern were invisible unless you were willing toCell Eastern State Penitentiary descend into the underground and experience the reality of the sepulcher. The truth for many people was that they indeed became the living dead, confined to their own grave, but salvation and transformation never came. For many, the personal experience of a living death was only that of the darkness of depression and a descent into the chaos of mental illness. 

In my most recent work of photographing classic memorial art around the World, I have found that the stone images which are my subjects are a profound Monumental Cemetery Milanexploration of man's struggle to understand his mortality and ultimately are an expression of his hope for transcendence. The stone statues as Saving Graces express powerful themes of transformation, salvation,Monumental Cemetery Milan transcendence, loss, fertility, rebirth, purity and renewal, all aspirations shared with the visionaries of the Pennsylvania Plan. However, the granite and marble Saving Graces wedded to the sepulchers of classical memorial art do not experience the isolation, suffering and loneliness of their human counterparts that occupied the sepulchers of Eastern State Penitentiary.  

Bibliography

Eastern State Penitentiary - Web Site 

http://www.easternstate.com/

 

Forged Images - Web Site

http://www.forgedimages.com/esptg.html#1821-18

 

Perrott, Mark and Kirn, Hal  (1999). Hope Abandoned, Eastern State Penitentiary. Pennsylvania Prison Society and the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, United States

Foucault, Michel. (1971). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, United States

Friedman, Lawrence. (1993) Crime and Punishment in American History, United States

Johnston, Norman. (1993) Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions, United States

Meranze, Michael. (1996) Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760-1835, United States.

Roberts, John. (1997). Reform and Retribution: An Illustrated History of American Prisons, United States

 

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bd14868_.gif (419 bytes) Eastern State Penitentiary Web Site

 

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