Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
Racing Thoughts No.10
“…in one way or another we’ve been wearing masks all our lives.”
“Oh, you can have that.” I was clutching the painting that had been returned from Koestler whilst I stood in the doorway of his cell. “Are you sure? I’m happy to pay for it.” He beckoned me in, “After all the help you’ve given me, it’s the least I can do…it’s yours mate if you want it.” I sincerely thanked him and sat down whilst he busied himself over some papers. “I wanted to catch up as I’ve written an article for ‘Inside Times’ about masks and thought you’d be interested.” SWiTCH The topless man with the nappy like shorts circled the old football pitch at a steady pace. His ageing leathery skin glistened in the heat, he just ran and ran, lap after lap, circling again and again…James and I resolved that today would be the day that we asked him if he would consider being in a film. SWiTCH The camera was positioned perfectly after a number of tests to adjust. I lowered the Boy George mask over my head and settled into position. After counting down the seconds in a motionless dead-eyed gaze at the reflection in front of me, I lifted the pen and began to write…I HAVE DANCED INSIDE YOUR EYES I HAVE DANCED INSIDE YOUR EYES I HAVE DANCED INSIDE YOUR EYES SWiTCH We stood back in the space and looked at our handywork. James and I had spent the day installing in the Greenhouse Gallery space on the 7th floor of the School of Art and we were quietly proud of how it looked. I had been concerned, as too had the men at Grendon when I’d first proposed a collaborative exhibition with the MA students, that there would be too great a gap between the responses from the two distinctly different groups. In honesty there were clear differences, but importantly, rather than that being an incongruous feature of the group show it was a strengthening factor. Why would the work be similar? The experiences of these two groups were vastly different and right now, here in the space, that was a definite strength in how the exhibition hung together. “It looks great doesn’t it?” said James, “It really does”, affirmed Jake who was there to document the work for Ikon. SWiTCH I HAVE DANCED INSIDE YOUR EYES SWiTCH As the topless man with the nappy like shorts got closer, James and I ventured forward a few steps so that were visible and hopefully able to catch his eye. We did register, James made his move with an opening greeting of “Hello…” before any more words could be formed the topless man with the nappy like shorts uttered “Hello” before he was gone, his pace taking him away from us before we could engage in our planned request. “We’ll have to wait for him to do another lap…unless we just run with him.” said James, “I’ve got bad knees.” I said, “best to wait for him to come back round.” SWiTCH As I walked purposefully along the ‘M1’ corridor on my way to deliver a couple of blank canvases to C-Wing a familiar figure appeared. Travelling towards me, the face from D-Wing burst into a smile, “Hiya. How are you?” I replied positively and returned the greeting before discussing the recently installed exhibition at the School of Art in Wolverhampton. “Your butterfly and moth drawings that you gave me for the exhibition look really good in the space. The show is great and we’ll be bringing some images in to show you how it looked. I just wanted to thank you though for contributing.” The smile grew wider, “You used my drawings? So like, people can see them in a gallery?” I nodded, “Yep, and they look great. Visitors really responded to them too.” The smile was fixed now, “Ahh mate, I can’t thank you enough. That’s made my day that has. Really appreciate it.” SWiTCH I HAVE DANCED iNSiDE YOUR EYES SWiTCH “What can I get you?” I leaned in so that my voice could be heard over the dampening of the facemask, “Could I get a medium Matcha Tea Latte with Soya Milk and a medium Café Latte please?” she smiled, “Of course, no problem. Could I get a name please?” the marker hovered over the cups. “George…Boy George.” One of her eyebrows raised in a way that suggested the tedious nature of my assertion, she wrote ‘George’ and then the pen hovered in hesitation before she wrote ‘Boy’ above the name she’d already written. When I returned to the table James laughed at the sight of the name on the side of his cup. “How did you get her to write that?” I smiled before replying “I read that wonderful article he wrote in The Guardian about his upbringing and maybe he was just on my mind. It was definitely not welcomed, they must get ridiculous names given to them all the time but…she went with it.” SWiTCH The house was quiet but for the inexplicable clicks and creeks that are a feature of the early hours. My head was buzzing with a relentless series of thoughts that wouldn’t go away, they formed an insurmountable barrier to sleep and I decided that it was time to give in to consciousness and get out of bed. I stumbled incongruously through the room to the door and gave a glance over my shoulder at her as she stirred slightly from my noise. My bladder dictated the next move and as I negotiated my way to the toilet and stood there half asleep but vertical trying to limit the impact of my pissing in terms of volume, the thought dawned on me that I might never sleep properly again. Walking to the edge of the top step I managed to elongate my stride so as to avoid stepping on Marriott who was spark out in the centre of the stairway. I descended unsteadily and headed for the kitchen. SWiTCH We’d waited a good few minutes for the topless man with the nappy like shorts to complete another circuit. James ventured forward again as we caught his eye for a second time, “Is your name…” before the sentence was complete the topless man with the nappy like shorts replied “No.” I stepped forward, “could we talk to you for a couple of minutes” he replied again “Not really, no.” and with that he was gone again. SWiTCH “Growing up in my house was very male orientated” I read George’s words and picked up a pen, opened the notebook and started writing in capital letters. GROWiNG UP iN MY HOUSE WAS VERY FEMALE ORiENTATED. I looked across at George’s words again and repeated the process of responding to his words with my own, “I lived in a working class household and my brothers were all quite laddy” I LiVED iN A WORKiNG CLASS HOUSEHOLD AND MY SiSTERS WERE VERY DiFFERENT TO EACHOTHER…THE ELDEST, DiSTANT AND ANGRY, THE CLOSEST MATERNAL AND PROTECTiVE. SWiTCH We were talking about the exhibition at Ikon in ’23 and James had commented on the fact that I probably knew how a certain amount of it would look already. “I’m not sure, it’s down to the curator isn’t it and I’m considering a number of ideas for a ‘third stage’ of the work.” I was just thinking out loud but James pushed for clarification, “What third stage?” I took a gulp of tea and continued improvising with the direction of the ideas. “Well, Elvis is the ideal…stage one, Boy George ruptures ideas of masculinity…stage two. And then what are you left with? I think that might be a return to the mirror possibly. Maybe thinking about the ‘space in-between’. The reflected male figure is neither subject nor object, self nor other, he is a spectre, a ghost that occupies the space between those things. I don’t know what it will be yet but I think I need to refer to those ideas somehow.” James smiled, “Whatever you do…make sure you explore that ‘space in-between’ … that’s it, that’s where the work will be. Everything you’ve said relates in some way to therapy here – to the process of rehabilitation.” SWiTCH I spotted an e-mail in my inbox entitled “Saw the Show” from artist Duncan Kostello and clicked to read it straight away. Hi Dean – So I came to see the exhibition yesterday afternoon took a couple of hours off work, they owed me a few anyway. The one thing that is evident is the difference in what the word lockdown means for the different contributors. My favourite work was the drawings done in crayon, it gave a direct look at the experiences of the author but the difficulties faced by so many people who occupy similar class status to him. I am fascinated to see how you come out of this experience as I imagine it will be different to how you entered it. – Regards, Duncan SWiTCH The kettle sung hoarsely in the early stillness of the kitchen, it was 4.12am and once I’d filled the mug with the requisite combination of hot water and soya milk to flood the teabag I ventured to the table. I’d left a couple of LPs lying on the surface from the night before and picked up the first, “A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart” by Bill Ryder Jones and then the second “David” by David Ruffin. Whilst I held the sleeve in my hand and gazed at the portrait on the front, David with his thick rimmed glasses and late 60’s floral shirt looking like the coolest guy on the planet, I pondered on the opening track that I’d been listening to just hours ago. I muttered a croaky rendition of the chorus to “Everyday is a Lifetime” to myself and for a brief second considered playing the record. It was too early for playing records though and I decided to take my tea to the studio instead. Picking up my bag of sketchbooks, I opened the back door and walked out into the cool morning air. SWiTCH THERE iS A RELATiONSHiP BETWEEN PERSONS AND ROLE. BUT THE RELATiONSHiP ANSWERS TO THE iNTERACTiVE SYSTEM – THE FRAME – iN WHiCH THE ROLE iS PERFORMED AND THE SELF OF THE PERFORMER iS GLiMPSED… SWiTCH We were in the washroom on C-Wing, the machines threw their contents cyclically and the dull colours danced to the rhythm of their machine captor. I sipped from the cup of black tea that had been provided so thoughtfully by our Art Rep as I studied the painting that he had presented to us. The figures were beautifully rendered and the urge to ‘complete’ the figures had been resisted for an altogether more powerful outline, spectre-like they lay forward in the cell that housed them. They worked in a way that seemed to chime perfectly with the research I’d been undertaking and with my thoughts around the mirror and the ghost. “What do you think then? Erm, some feedback on the colour of the cell would be appreciated.” I responded positively and talked about the use of complimentary colours whilst drawing a terrible colour wheel on a scrap of paper. The key thing though, was the figures, in my mind I started hearing a song by The Jam and played the words over in parallel to the vision of the hollow, partly visible figures in front of me. “Why are you frightened, can’t you see that it’s you? That ain’t no ghost that’s a reflection of you” SWiTCH Hi Duncan – Thanks for coming to see the exhibition and spending time with work. The differences are clear and at one point I was worried about that, but then decided that it would be a strong feature of the show rather than weakness. That particular work you site is interesting and has been the piece that has garnered a lot of discussion and responses. The author has had a difficult life and this comes through in both the work and the crime that he is in prison for. I wanted to show it, I think it is important. Most of the men feel invisible to the outside world and I can’t express what a show like this means to them. – As for me…every significant experience shapes who you are so I agree, I’m not sure who I will be after all of this! – Thanks again and speak soon, Dean SWiTCH “I didn’t do that normal thing of looking at my father and thinking, ‘That’s who I want to be.’ It was more like, ‘if that’s a man, I don’t want to be anything like him.’ But he wasn’t bad. No one really is.” George’s words continued to provide a relay for me, as I wrote I felt that this was the first time I’d ever let some of these thoughts escape. I DiDN’T DO THAT NORMAL THiNG OF LOOKiNG AT MY FATHER AND THiNKiNG ‘THAT’S WHO I WANT TO BE.’ IT WAS MORE LiKE, ‘iF THAT’S A MAN, I DON’T WANT TO BE ANYTHiNG LiKE HiM.’ AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK I WILL CHECK MYSELF AND MAKE SURE THAT I AM NOT BEHAViNG LiKE HiM. “It was expected of you.” iT WAS EXPECTED OF ME. SWiTCH A familiar face appeared at the bars, as a ‘red-band’ (trusted worker) he had been allocated a job in the grounds and it was the first time that any of the men had seen the space that we had been preparing for them when restrictions would allow them to leave the wings proper again and work in groups. After greeting our friend from D-Wing, James opened the barred door to let him in. “So, this is it then? How are you both?” It was good to show him around and talk about the plans we had, if nothing else he would be able to take it back to the wing and share our plans. “Still no toilet?” he nodded towards the brand new shrink wrapped bowl with equally well packaged fixtures and fittings jammed into it that sat next to our desks, ready for installation. “No, no news on that yet, but we are getting there. We’ve got a technician coming in next week to look at installing the walls for the gallery space. Hopefully it isn’t far away now.” SWiTCH Hi Dean – I agree the dynamic of the show was strong precisely because of the differences in meaning and for me it hung together on that particular piece. The work of the residents was brought forward due to this dynamic and I feel that it really made the viewer think about the nature of prison itself. I generally find gallery shows underwhelming but this one was startling and thought provoking – Regards, Duncan SWiTCH After spending some time discussing masks and the interest that he had in exploring this interest through his paintings, my host on D-Wing asked about my latest work. “I’ll bring the sketchbooks down next time I’m on the wing and you can have a proper look,” I ventured by way of response, “essentially though I’m interested in similar ideas to the ones you’ve been discussing around masks and maybe visibility. I guess for me it’s how it links to your experience…how the work will talk to you, and for you, that I’m wrestling with at the moment.” He pondered the words before replying, “It’s about confession…I mean confessing to yourself where you are and what you are. That’s why I’m intrigued by masks and the role they play in our behaviours.” SWiTCH My home studio was still set up from the Boy George shoot and I was minded not to dismantle the set up yet. I worked my way around the carefully positioned tripod and sat with the mirror (occupying this space as part of the film work I’d been making) on top of the desk in front of me, not something I normally do. The disconcerting experience of having my reflection with me as I laid out sketchbooks was a little distracting. I sipped from my mug and selected “David” from my Spotify playlist. The strings of opening track “Each Day is a Lifetime” kicked in briskly and were quickly followed by the honey toned yearning of David’s voice. I sang along but, as I caught my reflection, my earnest singing broke into a chuckle as my middle-aged grey-pale baggy faced reflection presented a ludicrously inadequate vision back to me. I’m not David Ruffin…the chuckle subsided as I stared at the reflection, I’m not David Ruffin…that much I thought I knew, but what was left after that thought? SWiTCH The space was looking more like a studio every day. I had now relocated my ‘dialogue wall’ from the education wing to Building 8 and it felt like a big step in the process of return to Grendon. A face appeared at the bars, I reasoned that he was in charge of the gardens and was in the process of preparing the afternoon activities for the red-bands. “Who are you?” I responded with a smile, “I’m the artist in residence.” The smile wasn’t bouncing back, “Oh, the previous guy was really tall. Not like you.” I moved towards the bars but the next question was already on the way, “Toilet fitted in there yet?” I shook my head from side to side and he was soon moving away with a final assertion, “That’d be about right!” SWiTCH I positioned the D-Wing painting, gifted to me by its author, on my wall in the office at work. Standing back, I nodded to myself. I’d spent time wondering if the two worlds should collide but after the show it felt right to put this up. SWiTCH I marked the position of the mirror with masking tape and once I’d satisfied myself that I could return to making the film and reposition it accurately within the boundaries I’d scoped out, I lifted the mirror away so that I could get on with some work. I checked my phone and it was still only 4.29am. I picked up one of my sketchbooks and started to revisit the last entries. The mirror was on my mind though and I reached for a book that I had recently picked up on artist, Jorge Molder and started to leaf through the pages. His images have always intrigued me and whilst I dare not use the term self-portraits, there seemed to be something drawing me in to his work around the reflected self. My eyes rested on an interview that had been undertaken for the publication between Molder and another practitioner, John Coplans. JC: So, the mirror determines your uniqueness as a human being. JM: No, I don’t think that a mirror can determine my uniqueness. That’s another question. But it does produce a strange effect, because I find someone who, to a certain extent, is my double. I recognise him. I recognise certain features that I’m sure belong to me, but at the same time, I don’t recognise myself in the mirror or, if you like, the images I produce. SWiTCH It had been a really interesting afternoon on C-Wing, I’d had a chance to show my sketchbooks and get really positive and valuable feedback on the work. We’d meandered onto the subject of therapy and a combination of the Boy George imagery and a conversation around the wearing of masks elicited an interesting connection from one of the men. “The therapy in here is brutal for most of us, because for the first time in our lives we are confronting the truth about ourselves…most of the time the response is ‘Brother I don’t want to face that truth’ but there is no other way.” The pages slipped between his fingers as he pondered the images upon them. “That’s why this stuff you’re working on will speak to everyone in here because in one way or another we’ve been wearing masks all our lives.”
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.