Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
Racing Thoughts No.8
“How much is too much masculinity?”
I cupped my hand over my mouth and tried to quash the unexpected howl that was squealing out of me. She had been in hospital for a week now and whilst I thought that I was doing OK, in this moment my level of control had just been gliding out of reach and the pain of her absence coursed through me, manifesting itself in a noise that to my recollection I had never made before. I was on the phone to Jane who had called out of concern for me. My mask of control had slipped completely, and now there was no choice but to hang up. In the silent room…alone…I let out one more uncontrolled yelp before slumping into the chair. SWiTCH A gust of wind swept through the room. It lifted the lovely lady off her her feet and blew her straight into the flames SWiTCH Over and over in my mind the thought of Boy George and working with him at Grendon flipped and folded in on itself. What did he represent to the men? How had he entered into my thinking and, furthermore, conversations with the men? How does or doesn’t he fit with Elvis? There had to be answers that would materialise soon. This is how it worked for me…endless hours with the sketchbooks wherein the pages conjured a conversation that threw the ideation back at me…made me think…made me question. If anything can tell me where I need to go with the work its these sketchbooks. The pages intuitively know what to ask of the work and what needs to be done to move it along. I looked up from the pages and fixed my vacant gaze on the framed image of Poly Styrene I have on the wall above the desk in my studio. Next to her defiant, intelligent, ‘if you don’t like it then fuck you’ frame were the lyrics to one of her most celebrated songs…”Identity – Is the crisis – Can’t you see – Identity, identity – When you look in the mirror – Do you see yourself – Do you see yourself – On the TV screen – Do you see yourself – In the magazine – When you see yourself – Does it make you scream.” Reading the lyrics sent me back in time and I suddenly thought about the wrestler, ‘The Exotic’ Adrian Street. SWiTCH “Anyway, with a bit of luck this Covid bug will soon piss off until the end of time so that we can all resume normality. Whatever that is, the philosophical discussions on the merits of various works of art and the culinary considerations of roadkill? Do miss that art room!” SWiTCH The clouds were grey and the rumbling ominous sound of thunder hung heavy in the air. What is it about thunder I thought as I walked back to the School of Art along Molineux Street. I was always scared of it as a child but couldn’t quite remember if it was the thunder or the lightning I was warned against, or was it both? It continued to fill the sky with potent growling weight as I navigated my way back to base. The rain had started to fall just as I reached the ramp that leads up to the staff entrance to the building. Standing in the rain, especially during a storm, is something that I’ve always been drawn to (despite my fears as a child, like a moth to a flame) and I took the opportunity to spend a few moments taking in the rain fall. The School of Art was opened in 1970 and is a towering monument to brutalist architecture, it is a building amongst buildings from that period and it speaks to my tastes. Growing up in Birmingham in the 70s and 80s means that I was encased in a world made up predominately with this style of building and I have always been reassured by its grey brown geometric form. Engaging in futile wordplay whilst absorbing the rain, hybrid words started to drift in and out of my mind…would it be a Bea-utal building…or Bru-tiful…is it a thing of Breauty or Beautality? As the words played out for no apparent reason my mind slipped forward to Grendon (itself an interesting series of period buildings) and the realisation that James had facilitated our return later in the week. What would it be like to go back there? Would we be remembered? How much had lost time cost us? The sound of the rain intensified and I stepped under the canopy and towards the automatic doors, placing my mask on and venturing forward, the thought seemed to amplify in my head…we are going back. SWiTCH “It would be good to work on the brief when you are both back, I haven’t had a decent coffee in months You truly have been missed.” SWiTCH My eyes were growing heavy in the lid and I guessed it wouldn’t be long before I slipped into unconsciousness, not that I found it easy to sleep without her. I shot a woozy glance over at the empty side of the bed and it served to sharpen my awareness momentarily. Returning my gaze to the screen in front of me I watched on. “Limelight” is my favourite Charlie Chaplin film and whilst I hadn’t watched it for a couple of years it held it’s power for me and was a semi-distraction in these moments alone. Chaplin’s character ‘Calvero’, a formerly successful comedian is haunted by the loss of his audience and struggles to come to terms with his identity as an ageing performer who can no longer perform. “Yes. I’ve lost my confidence. I was afraid of them. It was like standing before a firing squad! It was awful…the silence…” I reached down to the side of the bed and retrieved my sketchbook to make a couple of notes. SWiTCH Jo and Richard had been really kind in giving up their time for this interview, we were recording it for Ikon and I’d surrounded my desk with key questions writ large on A4 sheets. I’d asked Jo a question about the notion of communities and hierarchy and she responded with words that immediately resonated, “It is very painful to look in a mirror.” SWiTCH The meeting was drawing to a close and it had been on my mind to say something about the choice of font that had been used on the draft design for the book. I braced myself and went for it…”Fraser, sorry can I just ask about the font? I’m not a designer and you are, so I absolutely will accept you making the decision on it and I’m sure you have reasons that I shouldn’t be questioning. Could you just talk through it please.” I’d said it, as awkward as I’d felt it was out there. Fraser articulately explained the reasons in depth and why the reader would probably find it easier to navigate in this form, and how a font with serifs is statistically proven to be more legible when blocks of texts are printed…and then, after this eloquent explanation, he said “You hate the font don’t you?” Asked the direct question I couldn’t lie and I affirmed my aversion to it. “It’s serifs I’m afraid, I mean it’s just decoration and I don’t know why letters need frills like that, what’s a serif for?…I’m sorry” Jonathan had been listening intently and smiled before interjecting, “It’s not Mod enough Fraser, I think that’s what we’re saying.” Fraser gracefully offered to rework the text with the use of a far less fussy font and we agreed to look at the final drafts at a later date. I closed the laptop and looked across at the record shelves. My eyes rested on the Jazz section and I picked out Jimmy Smith’s 1964 album with Stanley Turrentine entitled “Prayer Meetin’” on Blue Note Records. The covers produced by this label were always exquisitely designed and having just had the conversation about fonts I examined the text on the front cover. Nodding to myself in approval, I muttered the words “…see, no serifs, beautiful.” SWiTCH iT iS VERY PAiNFUL TO LOOK iN A MiRROR SWiTCH I sat at my studio desk and revisited notes that I had made on the central character from “Limelight”, I had started a new sketchbook (the 3rd of the residency) and something had compelled me to dig out those late-night notes that I’d made on the film. Starting a new sketchbook, whatever the stage of the work, always makes me feel positive as it indicates some progress. Above a still of Chaplin’s character I had written the words “WHAT ARE WE AFRAiD TO CONFRONT?” In the image the character sits, haunted by a nightmare that he has just awoken from and he stares into the lens with a piercing intensity. Whist I had not intended to bring comedy into the residency, I had to concede that there were threads in the notes on “Limelight” that were coalescing with my thinking on the work that I’m developing at Grendon. The re-introduction of mirrors into my work is a key decision I have to make, following the interview that we’d conducted with Jo and Richard recently. Jo had triggered this revision through one of her responses to a question and it was now that I started to triangulate ideas around the Chaplin character as a lone male figure, the mirror as a recurring motif and the relentless gaze of the reflected figure. Somewhere lost in the middle of these thoughts were the next steps in the practice. SWiTCH I typed furiously “I’m so sorry and so embarrassed. I’m OK, honestly.” Pressing send on the text I hoped that Jane would not think less of me. The room was still silent and it wasn’t long before my mind reached out for Grendon. The residents must go through moments like this all the time. SWiTCH I could see James approaching through the window of Starbucks, we had agreed to meet at Warwick Service Station. I had arrived much earlier than planned so that I could crack on with some of the sketchbook work. On the table to my right there was a trio of men who were ensconced in a loud discussion about their respective work places. From the fragments of their conversation that had punctured my contemplative working state, they had something to do with the motor trade. The loudest of the men appeared to be bragging about stealing clients from a previous place of work. Through the forest of their chatter James emerged, now inside the café and with a big grin on his face he enquired, “Would you like a drink, Dean?” SWiTCH It had been a week or so since I’d made the appointment through the Video Call system with the prison. Initially my request had been rejected as I hadn’t been correctly assigned to a visitor list, then due to my booking an appointment on a day when the men were not allowed visits it had bounced back with a rejection once more. After the teething troubles were settled I found myself booking an appointment for Thursday at 2.30pm and now that day had arrived I was waiting in my spare room with my iPad on a stand, ready to go. I checked the clock and it was 2.25pm. Having never used the system I thought I’d log in early to see what would happen and by the time I’d navigated my way through the various checks and sign in commands a familiar voice echoed from the small speaker and filled the room. “Hello…hello” my screen revealed a face that I hadn’t seen for over a year and it felt good to be reconnected to this person, “Hiya mate, how you doing?” “I’m as good as can be expected Dean, you know this thing has been tough but it’s been tough for everyone hasn’t it. I’ve got a roof over me head, I’m fed and I can spend all my time painting at the moment so you won’t hear any complaints from me. What about you mate, are you ok?” After initial greetings we turned our attentions to the brief that we’d sent in for the men to work on until our return and it wasn’t long before the system started reveal just how sophisticated it was…”The painting you sent in as a reference for us all, I don’t want to speak out of turn because we’re all grateful but I just find it depressing and I don’t really feel there’s a way I can respond to it.” I grabbed my nearest sketchbook and opened at a sequence I’d been working on, a simple series of stills from a short film I’d made that I’d been considering in relationship to the brief (I’d been talked into working on it alongside the residents by the MA students). “Look at this here.” I held up the book to show it on screen and…nothing…then a message ‘Your call has been ended because there was another unauthorised person on screen. If this was an error, please re-enter the call where you will be asked to submit a passport sized photo for comparison with your registered account’ The system had detected the image from my sketchbook and read that image as another (unauthorised) person in the call. Every second seemed to matter, I knew that there would be no more than the allocated 30 minutes, so I rushed to get back in. Less than a minute later the face reappeared and apologising for the error I continued to talk through a variety of ways in which the brief could be approached (not using my own work as a reference again) “I’ve brought a couple of my latest paintings with me if you would like to have a look?” “That would be brilliant, I’d love to see what you’ve been working on.” They were really good, one entitled “The Walls Are Closing In” and another, “Gilt” were painted in rich detail and expressed a sense of incarceration within incarceration, the double down of being locked down whilst being locked up. It dawned on me that I wouldn’t be able to express the lift I felt to see these, that despite my absence, work had continued. “You’re already answering the brief with those paintings, so much to go on there, I’ll send you some references when I write next that I think you’ll be interested in.” I hadn’t noticed the time but knew that it must be nearly up, “Say hello to every…” the screen went purple and it was over. Enthused and lifted by the call I bounded downstairs to tell her everything that we’d talked about. SWiTCH The Boy George mask I had crafted looked good enough to begin working with. I had practiced my ‘Karma Chameleon dance’ in preparation and I felt that it was time to record some initial tests…something was creating an itch on my thoughts though and the irritation wouldn’t subside. As I manipulated the mask to fit over my face, I stared into one of the mirrors I have stacked in the studio. “Why are you going to dance as Boy George? The dance worked for Elvis…Boy George isn’t Elvis…Elvis isn’t Boy George…this doesn’t have to run the same way.” I took off the mask and went back to the sketchbooks laid out on my desk. I pressed play on the playlist that I had created ‘Boy George & Culture Club’ the words of the first song struck me as they always had done and I picked up a marker pen and started to jot them down. A cross between Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and Gillian Wearing’s ‘Signs…’ work drifted into mind and I replaced the mask and walked outside with the camera SWiTCH The tin soldier stood there dressed in flames. He felt a terrible heat, but whether it came from the flames or from his love he didn’t know. He’d lost his splendid colours. SWiTCH I really like your idea of the shadow that’s cast from the central figures. There is an artist that I think you will be interested in called Hester van Dapperen I have attached an image (don’t know what the quality is like I’m afraid but hopefully you’ll get a sense of it). The ‘Anonymous’ work you are developing sounds really interesting and I can’t wait to get back and see it. Meetings are taking place and hopefully we’ll be back sooner rather than later now. James is pulling together all the info on Koestler and will hopefully be sending that info out as soon as he can. We have also put together the next pack for the brief and this will be going out soon. Hopefully we’ll then be back to start working on it with you. SWiTCH GiVE ME TiME TO REALiZE MY CRiME. LET ME LOVE AND STEAL, I HAVE DANCED iNSiDE YOUR EYES. HOW CAN I BE REAL? DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HURT ME, DO YOU REALLY WANT TO MAKE ME CRY. PRECiOUS KiSSES WORDS THAT BURN ME. LOVERS NEVER ASK YOU WHY. IN MY HEART THE FiRE iS BURNiNG .CHOOSE MY COLOUR FiND A STAR. PRECiOUS PEOPLE ALWAYS TELL ME. THAT’S A STEP A STEP TOO FAR. DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HURT ME? SWiTCH Pulling into the car park at Grendon for the first time in 15 months felt strange, a blend of euphoria and apprehension. We had always used to park on the overflow car park to the right of the main buildings but this had now been converted into a space that held temporary huts. Our car park had gone…changed, what else will be different I reasoned as I pulled the car around in order to head for the main site. I fiddled with my mask and then threw it onto the car seat before closing the door. I didn’t know whether we required them or not and pre-Covid I would have been stopped at the gate and asked about anything that partially occluded my face, as this would have normally raised a security question, I reasoned that it would be best not to carry it with me. James was waiting, as part of the risk assessment we had had to travel separately but had co-ordinated so that we could arrive at a reasonably similar time. With each step taking me closer to the main entrance it dawned on me that I was finally going back inside. SWiTCH “Thanks for taking the time to attach the image of Hester van Dapperen’s work .Interesting concept that she’s used by inserting the negative space into the shadows. I’ve not done any more work on my idea for the From Night Into Day brief but I’m pretty sure now where I want to go with it. I am running short of paints at the mo, but not quite in dire straits yet. Is there any scope for another video call Dean? It was really good to catch up, even if it was for only half an hour.” SWiTCH Placing my mug of tea down on the table and reaching for the small blade that I keep by my record shelves. I opened the package carefully and pulled out the 12” vinyl from within. The Sleaford Mods have always been a band that I have been interested in but I hadn’t collected all of their albums. I’d treated myself to this limited edition double LP that covered all their early singles and eps after a few long days and nights at work. As I guided the first of the two circular slabs of vinyl from the double sleeve a booklet fell from inside. The sparse minimal beats burst from the speakers and the acerbic poetics of Jason Williamson’s flood of verbal utterances filled the room. “THE METROPOLiS OF DiSCONTENT AND LOST DREAMS, BENSON AND MESSES AND DENiM JEANS…MiDDLE MEN!” The booklet was beautifully put together and featured an essay by Iggy Pop about the band and the significance that he felt they held as a contemporary force. When describing Williamson, Pop proclaims that the vocalist “…takes the piss out of the frontman tradition because he is burdened with too much masculinity and intelligence to do otherwise” I smiled to myself and thought what a great line that is. There was a small collection of blank hand-made sketchbooks that I put together over lockdown sitting on the table. Picking one randomly from the top of the pile I opened it and frantically scribbled down the line about masculinity and the ‘burden’ of it. The pen flowed and my tea had gone cold by the time I set it down and looked at the notes that had come from that one observation by Iggy Pop. I pondered on a question…”How much is too much masculinity?”
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.