Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“What is a ‘good’ man? That’s still the question…”
What is a ‘good’ man? That’s the question that has been circling around my head over Christmas and New Year. I don’t think I know, but if I’m honest I think I’ve always wanted to be one…whatever one is. Nothing has warmed my insides as much as hearing someone say that I am a good man. To my recollection this has only happened twice in my life. SWiTCH UNDER THiS MASK ANOTHER MASK. I WiLL NEVER FiNiSH REMOViNG ALL THESE FACES SWiTCH I was in the community room on C wing and enjoying a conversation with the men about the work they are preparing for Koestler related to Ai Weiwei and the theme of ‘Taste’. Our outgoing Art Rep, a prolific painter, wanted to talk about the work I’m making and the recent blog. “I’m not being funny mate but that last blog was a bit flat wasn’t it? I mean there’s big people paying for you to go out to a massive gallery in Berlin and talk about your work here with us and you just seemed to downplay it…it’s big kudos all that mate, if it were me I’d be shouting it from the rooftops.” SWiTCH The chiropractor took hold of my ankles as I lay face down…“Your left leg is two centimetres shorter than your right leg, did you know that?” I responded in the negative but my mind leapt straight to the Tin Soldier…how curious I thought that another connection with the figure had cropped up. SWiTCH THE FACE BELONGS TO SOMEONE WHO iS UNKNOWABLE WiTHOUT A FACE SWiTCH Things have been going really well on A wing, there are a group of residents who are engaged in making art and they attend our wing sessions with regularity and interest. A new resident had been introduced to me some weeks ago and had mentioned that he would like to get into making work again after losing momentum during lockdown. I’d talked to him about some of the work I’d been making and mentioned Boy George as a focal point. On this particular day I arrived on the wing for my regular meeting and he was keen to see me. “I’ve been working on this for you and wanted to give it to you today to say thank you for all the work you do with us.” He was carrying a canvas and turned it around to reveal a wonderful portrait of Boy George, it was clearly the product of some serious labour on his part and I was knocked out by it. “Thank you so much for this, it’s fantastic. You must have really worked solidly to produce this, we only talked about Boy George a couple of weeks ago.” He explained that when he was working on something he would get completely absorbed and would just work and work until he felt it was complete. “I’m not 100% happy with a couple of little bits of it but I’m ready to give it to you. It’s the best I can do I think.” After the session I made a point of thanking him again for the hard work and thoughtful gesture. I took the work to show James in the workshop. “That’s amazing, how perfect for what you’re doing in your work.” SWiTCH “Why don’t you use my name in your blog?” We were driving to the hospital and both trying to keep our minds from what lay ahead. “You’re a private person and you’ve always said that you don’t want to feature in anything like that. I just thought that you’d rather stay un-named?” Over the years she had stayed away from opening nights and events around my work, we would always just see and review things in our own time together and it meant that I could detach myself and be objective about what was in a space, what I’d said or hadn’t said or how a piece of work looked projected on a wall. We’d share opinions that way and it had always worked. “As long as people reading it don’t view it as a sexist thing…you know like “‘er indoors” or something crass like that. You can give me a pseudonym if you want to.” I navigated a busy traffic island in silence and then responded, “What would you like to be called?” After a number of terrible suggestions that elicited some short giggles and eased the tension of the journey the decision was made, “Just carry on as you are, I just don’t want you to be accused of being sexist…you’re not and don’t deserve people to misread it like that…it’s up to you, it’s your blog.” SWiTCH POiSED BETWEEN BEiNG AND BECOMiNG SWiTCH I sat down in the space surrounded by Layla’s work and through my mask I could smell a freshness that seemed to fill the air. Layla is one of the Level 6 Fine Art students in my tutor group and we had met for our usual tutorial to talk through the latest developments in her work. Identity and memory are key aspects of her practice as well as visibility and invisibility, the spoken and the unspoken. We have been discussing an installation idea that she had spent time testing in her space. As she opened the sketchbooks I commented on the sensory experience of the suspended bedsheets that surrounded us. “That’s interesting, I didn’t use any of that awful fabric conditioner though. They have been dried in the open air.” We talked about little details and how certain aspects of the work were really coming through strongly. “It’s always been about becoming and unbecoming and I genuinely think that I’ve arrived at a solution that expresses something of that.” I nodded, sometimes the best feeling as a tutor is the moment when a student tells you about their work with such authority and conviction that you don’t have to speak because they have arrived at a point where they know their practice better than you do. They may ask a question but then answer it themselves and it is a great feeling when it happens. The reason Layla is in my tutor group is perhaps related to an interrogation of identity within our practices and we both have more than a passing interest in class identity. “I’ve been playing with that idea of ‘the conversation’ that we talked about in the last tutorial and I’ve written down here the word ‘revolt’” I made a small interjection, “Revolt? Or is it repel?” SWiTCH I lowered myself into the hot water after turning the tap off and placed the mug on the coaster by the window ledge next to the bath. I had been motionless for some time. I grasped my nose and sank backwards. With my head now fully submerged there was nothing but the sensation of being consumed by the dull heat and the muted sound of the silent house. As my mind cleared the day that had gone by I thought only of her. She was in hospital and I couldn’t be with her. When my breath reached the final stretch and I couldn’t contain it any longer I burst through the surface and gasped in the steaming air around me. SWiTCH “If you think the last blog was flat then I’m not sure you’ll go for the next one at all.” I knew that I was entering one of those moments where I was going to open up to the men around me but felt comfortable in doing so, “I’ve been plagued with a thought over the last month or so that I might not be a good man, I’ve had sleepless nights over it and I don’t know what one is or why I need the validation of being called one.” SWiTCH THE FACE iS MORE STAGE THAN MiRROR. WHEN THE EXPRESSiVE WORK STOPS, NOTHiNG REMAiNS BUT AN EMPTY STAGE SWiTCH The workshop/studio space at Grendon has been coming on nicely and we have been keen to have everything ready for the residents to start utilising the space when restrictions finally clear…that was until the discovery of a large patch of excrement that had started to appear and grow in volume in the gallery space that we had had installed. After our experience with the owl, when confronted with this dirty protest James and I concluded that our dazed Tawny must be the culprit. This presented an unwanted problem, it would delay the opening of the space whilst any holes in the walls at the top of gallery were blocked but more worryingly if the owl was responsible and it was nesting in our space then we could be in for another significant delay as protected species take precedent over the display of art. Googling owl droppings is not my usual area of research but after a concerted effort online I resolved that the mess on our floor was non-owl in origin. It was more likely blackbirds or jackdaws and they are not protected so armed with this info I spoke to the deputy governor (who himself had engaged in the same type of research and concluded the same as myself). It felt like we had dodged a difficult situation and whilst the heating was down and needed sorting we remained hopeful that the men would soon be in the workshop and the From Night into Day work on the walls. SWiTCH The sketchbooks were flowing, I knew in one sense that it was just a distraction technique on my part whilst I awaited news from the QE. I had spoken to Jake about the forthcoming plan to shoot the ‘Elvis’ film at Grendon and had decided that I should revisit and prepare a straightforward plan for the scheduled days. I found myself looking at the latest letter from one of the men on D wing (the wing was on lockdown after an outbreak of Covid-19 and I had not been able to visit for four weeks). Instead of the sessions on the wing I had been writing through the ‘email a prisoner’ service and between us had developed a conversation about the work that we were both making. “I’m minded of your vision of people wandering the corridors wearing the ‘idealised identity’ Elvis mask! Do you think that without diverse and real opportunity for absorbing, new plausible ways of being, carceral spaces leave us either reaching for old masks or longing for a misguided ideal that’s forever out of reach?” SWiTCH I was on my own in the workshop, James was not in as he had a mountain of paperwork to sort. I selected a CD About the Young Idea: The Best of The Jam and started working on the sketchbooks. As I made notes about the work I’m developing around mirrors and the reflected self, the song Carnation burst from the speakers. I sipped tea and absorbed the words, they were amongst my favourite Weller lyrics and, as sometimes happens, the words landed not only in my thoughts but crept onto the page…“iF YOU’RE WONDERiNG BY NOW WHO I AM THEN LOOK NO FURTHER THAN THE MiRROR, BECAUSE I AM THE GREED AND FEAR AND EVERY OUNCE OF HATE iN YOU.” After a period of intense note-making I stood back, there was something there I thought but I needed a few moments to consider what that something might be. As a diversion I found myself moving into the middle of the workshop and in a fit of random thought considered the possibility that I might be able to impress her if I could do a Bruce Lee roundhouse kick when I got back home…I tried to adopt a stance that would facilitate the move that I had only seen distantly on screen some years ago. With some minor success I threw my right leg up in the air and round in an arced trajectory…the chiropractor appointments might be working I thought as I checked for any twinges or strains and realised I had arrived unscathed at the other end of the manoeuvre. SWiTCH “Is it wrong to steal…yes. Is it wrong to steal to feed your starving family…I don’t know. This idea of whether you are good or bad isn’t as simple as it sounds.” The conversation on C wing had opened up after my disclosure about the niggling thought that had plagued me for over a month now. Each of the men in the room contributed and it seemed that, whilst we had artwork in the room, artwork wasn’t the main focus anymore. “Listen, you have to know in here (patting chest) that when you make a decision, whether it turns to shit afterwards or not, you’ve made that decision for the right reasons. That’s all you can do, the label ‘good man’ or ‘bad man’…why are you bothered?” I shuffled in my seat as I thought through the conversation, “I don’t know is the honest answer…” SWiTCH Martin Freeman is a mighty fine actor, he is a mod and he is an authority on soul music (specifically Motown) and I trust most of what he has done. I won’t enter in to a discussion on Tolkien…it’s all a mystery to me and a mystery I never want to interrogate. The Responder is his latest TV drama and I have rarely seen him perform so intensely and so perfectly. As a demoted Detective Inspector his character is back in uniform and struggling to come to terms with the misdemeanours of his past as well as the difficulties of his present. The scenes with his occupational therapist were so sharply delivered that they left an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of the stomach. As his agitated, broken character pleaded with his therapist for advice the tension was palpable. “I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S RiGHT AND WRONG ANYMORE. OK? I THOUGHT I WAS DOiNG SOMETHiNG GOOD THiS WEEK AND NOW iT’S GOT ME…FUCKED. SO WHAT I WANT TO KNOW RiGHT iS HOW DO YOU EVEN KNOW…BEFORE YOU DO SOMETHiNG…HOW DO YOU EVEN KNOW iF iT’s RiGHT OR NOT? I MEAN RiGHT FOR YOU, AND FOR THEM AND FOR SOMEONE YOU’VE NEVER EVEN MET?” as his character started to rub his temples the therapist responded, “RiGHT AND WRONG iS QUITE A BiNARY CONCEPT. THE FiRST THiNG A CHiLD LEARNS. iF YOU CAN CLEAR THE FOG AND CLEAR YOUR MiND THEN YOU’LL KNOW WHAT IS RiGHT AND WRONG.” SWiTCH “What do you think?” I stared at the portrait that had presented to the group, the gap between my response and the question gave rise to another, “C’mon spit it out, if you think it’s not working tell me.” I moved closer to the canvas, “It’s working but the tone on the top half of the face is colder than the bottom half and I think that could be distracting. Maybe, worth fixing that so you have a more even feel across the face.” He seemed to appreciate the observation, “Yeah, I thought it might work initially but now you say it…Should I go warmer on top or colder at the bottom?” SWiTCH James stood sorting out some materials for the men and I decided to see what he thought of my ‘roundhouse’ skills. “James…did I tell you I’ve been practicing my ‘Kung-Fu skills’?” James turned with a wide smile and replied negatively but with an anticipation in his voice. “Are you going to demonstrate?” I stepped forward and did my best to accurately execute the highest roundhouse I could muster. “Dean…that was phenomenal, your foot was above your head!” I went back to the sketchbooks and continued to work, quietly pleased with myself for momentarily being Bruce Lee. SWiTCH Driving home from Grendon, I cut across small country lanes and green fields. There are a couple of small villages that are en route too, I prefer this as an option to the motorway. My thoughts were with the C wing conversation and my ongoing niggling thought around good/bad, right/wrong. It had been a really positive thing for me to share with them and I was grateful for their insights. The Belbury Poly’s The Gone Away LP poured through the speakers and I remained focused on the road, the burbling electronic sound filling the car and the remaining mantra-like thought in my head…What is a ‘good’ man? That’s still the question…
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.