NOTES FROM HMP GRENDON
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“You’ve made a habit of borrowing other people’s clothes…you’ve borrowed mine enough times!”
I was doing what Hancock had told me to do. It was F and D wing community members in the workshop today and as I stood by the sink preparing the hot drinks, one of our regulars came over to me with a print that he’d been working on. It was an etching that carried a heavy presence of black ink around the head of a figure who was looking at his own reflection in a mirror. The double headed image (face and reflected face) responded to Jorge Molder’s work which had been an ongoing point of discussion between myself and this community member for a good while now. “What do you think of this? I think it’s a bit shit.” SWiTCH The traffic was solid and heavy and staccato and impenetrable in its rhythmic constraint. This was typical I thought, the first time I’d driven to Wolverhampton for a while and the Black Country New Road was closed. The resulting chaotic diversion had added an extra hour to my journey so far and I was still some way away from my destination. I selected The Beastie Boys Ill Communication on my playlist and revelled in the sheer power of the sound that now burst from the speakers. How was I going to resolve the collages? SWiTCH As I placed the Carolee Schneeman catalogue on the shelf amongst the other books, I spied a spine that corresponded to a book I thought I’d lost, or given to someone as a gift…Richard Beckinsale’s book of poetry, With Love, was now in my hand, I’m sure I’d given this away, I thought. Opening the light grey cover, I busied my way through the pages for a poem that he had written about male identity. LET HiM RiSE AND LET HiM FALL, LET HiM CRY, LET HiM LAUGH SWiTCH James and I had spent the morning at the Koestler Awards exhibition on the Southbank, it had been wonderful to see the work of our community members in and amongst the work from other prisons. Ai Wei Wei’s curatorial decisions had segregated the space into cell size cubicles with themes grouping the work together. The sense of pride in seeing ‘our work’ was repeated over and over as we tracked down the pieces that had been included from Grendon. SWiTCH I took the print from his hand to examine closer, “why do you think it’s shit? I think it works really well.” He grasped the image back, “I don’t know really, I just think it could have worked better than this.” The kettle had completed its rasping song and I started to pour the boiling water into the several mugs laid out before me. “It’s going in the exhibition. That is a nice print and you should be really pleased with what you’ve done there. Conceptually as well as technically by the way.” He silently pondered the image a little longer and then seemed to accept the possibility that it was achieving what he had wanted to, but I could tell there was something niggling him about it still. “Give it a break, look at it next week with fresh eyes and we can talk about what you need to do if it still isn’t sitting where you want it to.” His lips curled upwards and he dropped the print to his side before reaching for the milk to assist my tea-making. “How’s it going now you’ve finished work at the School of Art? You are okay, aren’t you? You will be okay?” SWiTCH She walked into the bathroom with a cup of tea in hand as I moved the blade in measured downward strokes across the lower part of my face. “What are you doing?” she enquired on noticing that my eyes were firmly closed during the act I was engaged in. “I’m trialling blind shaving. You know, removing the mirror from the process.” I heard the mug gently hit the surface of the shelf above the bath. “How do you think that’s working out for you?” she further enquired as my eyelids remained firmly locked. “Good I think. You know you’ve got to try things to see how they work.” I heard her footsteps heading out of the bathroom before her final comment, “The blood trickling down your chin might give you the answer to that.” SWiTCH LET HiS WEAKNESS BE BROUGHT CLOSE TO HiM, LET HiS SECRET FEARS BE KNOWN SWiTCH I looked around the studio in Building 8 and marvelled at the sight. 18 community members from the several wings had answered my call to participate/contribute to the ‘neutral mask’ film I’d devised and as the noise of their conversations gently started to abate I felt that I needed to speak. “I can’t thank you all enough for coming here today and offering to contribute to the film. I can be honest and say that I genuinely feared that we wouldn’t have enough of you guys to achieve what I wanted but here we are and it’s genuinely amazing that you have given your time to this.” After outlining the principles of what we wanted to achieve I was due to hand over to Mike Chase, our facilitator for the day, but I had one more thing to add. “I used to work at Woolworths, for those of you old enough to remember what Woolworths was. A manager that I had there taught me a valuable lesson. He instructed me to go up on the roof and clean off years of shit and debris, it was the most disgusting job and I hate heights. I went up there and quietly seethed about him until a point where he appeared next to me, rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in too. He told me that he would never expect me to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself and I thought that was so important…in that spirit, I will be in the film with you all, I will go through the same process as everyone here and I’ll go first too…it is only fair.” The community members applauded unexpectedly and the warmth from them was palpable. I felt at home, I felt needed and part of the something special. SWiTCH I sank my face into her shoulder, “I’m feeling like I’m letting you down at the moment. Like, this situation isn’t good enough” She squeezed me tighter and without saying a word made every peripheral thought dissipate. SWiTCH “What you looking so pleased with yourself for, eh?” I was back visiting Tony Hancock and as I sat on the bench to his left I sipped tea and felt the fresh cold air fill my lungs with a refreshing surge. I can admit to a slight smile on my face as I considered the last few days at Grendon. “Mine’s a pint by the way…or did you only get yerself one of them?” Tony gestured towards the drink I held in my hand and my line of thought was broken. “You’ve got a cup of tea there, how is it?” The corner of his lips turned ever so slightly upwards, “it’s cold, I should’ve drunk it ages ago…but time got away.” The gentle bustle of the day was unfolding around us, just after the rush to work and before the burst of lunch hour but nonetheless a steady level of city activity was peripherally apparent. “Well? What’s made you so at ease this morning? Last week it was all ‘woe is me’ and ‘tortured artist’, now you look like the cat that got the cream.” SWiTCH Marriott looked up at me before leaping onto the table. I sipped tea as he walked over the pages of my sketchbook and momentarily distracted my gaze from the words that I had written last time I was at Grendon. I knew he’d relax and let me return to the pages shortly, I stroked his expectant head and he purred heavily. “How do you do that?” I asked, he just looked at me and half blinked his appreciation at my attentions. “How do you just take a decision and then make it happen? How do you settle so quickly?” Marriott didn’t answer, he just manoeuvred his way to a comfortable position next to the sketchbook and continued to purr as we listened to Curtis Mayfield’s Back to The World album together. I picked up the pen and started to revisit the notes on the pages while he sat and watched. SWiTCH Tony’s words of advice rang in my ears as I ventured a response to the enquiry about how I was doing. “Thanks for asking…actually I think I am okay. I was being a bit of a prick for a couple of weeks there, but I think I’ve sorted myself out now. It’s a positive thing, I can totally focus fully on what we’ve been doing here and working towards the exhibition. It’s a good thing really. Sorry if I’ve been a bit off it.” He smiled, “No mate, you’ve been fine. Are you okay for money? As long as you can pay the bills then you’re right, you can just crack on.” I took the print once more, and turned it upside down. After viewing the inverted image myself, I flipped it around to face it’s author. “Works like this actually doesn’t it. The reflection has an order this way round that makes sense with what you’ve been trying to achieve…don’t know, just a thought.” He acknowledged the new orientation as a possibility but remained non-committal, “let’s have a look again next week.” The clinking of the cups as we worked through tea-making sounded before he offered one more thought. “Can’t you just stay longer here with us?” SWiTCH LET HiM KNOW WHERE HiS STRENGTH LiES, LET HiM KNOW HiMSELF iN RELATiON TO YOU SWiTCH The meeting was going really well…or at least I think it was. I’d joined Linzi and James with Alan from the install team and Lucy as curatorial assistant. I laid out the draft plan for the exhibition in front of them and started to talk through some ideas. I stopped myself instantly at the need to just express a thought, “I’m not an artist who demands complete control…what I want is to work with people, you know the space and audience better than I do. If you have ideas about what we can do in the space then please feel free to share. This draft here is the start of a conversation not the end of one.” SWiTCH “You helped a great deal Tone, I took your advice and spoke with a couple of the guys at Grendon. I feel better and more focused as a result of doing that. We had Dr Simon in to do a couple of days introducing screen printing and it was great. You should see some of the work that the men have already produced. They really got stuck in and you can see that with some of them, screen printing is just going to open things up in terms of what they make. There’s one print that…” Tony interrupted abruptly by talking over me, he was good at that, in all the time I’d been coming to see him he’d never hesitated to talk over me if he felt the need to establish his dominance in a conversation. “Grendon, Grendon, Grendon…is that all you have to talk about these days?” Adopting a sarcastic timbre he continued, “how are you Tone? Still here are you? Been out recently? Must be tough for you Tone, I’m here for you mate. Tell me all.” After a moment of silence he persevered with mock answers to his sarcastic questions, “I’m great, just great my friend. It’s good that you are here for me, yes I haven’t managed to get away for some time…erm, getting on for 26 years now. Don’t you worry about me though mush, haven’t been to a pub in decades and I’m a statue but you can’t ‘ave everything can yer?” SWiTCH Gary Mansfield had been brilliant over the two days at Grendon talking about his career as an artist after his time in prison. He was a key figure for the community members in front of him, he’d been through a journey similar to theirs and his successes were testament to a dedication on his part to change his life upon release. He was honest, direct and open, “I would literally stand in my cell and look at myself in the mirror and try and find out what the fuck I could be.” SWiTCH The afternoon was ahead of us following our trip to the Koestler Awards. I had a plan of what to do and gently suggested to James that we should go to the Barbican and see the Carolee Schneeman exhibition that was currently on. He agreed and as we approached the venue my step quickened. As much as I’d seen her work in books and in documentaries, this would be the first time I had seen an exhibition first hand. James acknowledged the increase in pace. “I can tell you’re excited about this.” I smiled, “It’s just that I’ve never seen her work in the flesh before. It’s going to be good.” SWiTCH LET HiM KNOW WHERE HiS STRENGTH LiES, LET HiM KNOW HiMSELF iN RELATiON TO YOU SWiTCH “That experience making the film, I was talking to the therapists about the effect it had on me.” I ventured a worried expression as I had been keen to make sure as far as possible that the filming would not impact negatively on the individuals involved. “It’s okay, it was all good. Challenging but all good mate, don’t worry. You see in prison you only really experience a very small number of spaces, you become so familiar with them that you are just numb within them after a while. The way you set up that shoot, even though it was a space we have seen before it was totally different…totally new to me. I felt somewhere else, somewhere non-prison. You made it dark and quiet and it was like being suspended in a new place. It was black instead of ‘HMP Magnolia’ or ‘HMP Blue’ and black is a new colour in prison. It really made me feel like I was hovering in between spaces.” SWiTCH WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU? SO MUCH GONE. SO MUCH GOiNG. ENOUGH. NOT ENOUGH. LONE. ALONE. I was transcribing some of the responses that had been gathered from the participants in the film that I have decided to call Absolute Beginners. The neutral mask had revealed so much and it had been useful to get the thoughts of everyone after they had encountered the reflection in the mirror. The comments post-filming had been really insightful and had helped me understand how difficult and/or freeing it can be to face a reflection whilst wearing a neutral mask. I wrote in the sketchbook further as another response came through. NOTHiNG…EXPRESSIONLESS…BREATH iN AND OUT. STiLLNESS iN THE NOW. A WORLD OF NOTHiNG iN A FACE. SWiTCH “I see that you are back on TV Tone…and in colour too!” I was referring to the two episodes that have been ‘re-coloured’ by UK Gold and due to be screened soon. “What?” an uncomfortable pause followed before he continued, “BBC bastards! Haven’t got the decency to ask. I’ve been in colour before when I went to Australia, it’s nothing new. Colour is colour! Black and white is black and white! How dare they!” His anger was palpable but I decided to continue with the discussion as I was sure that he would see the value of being ‘re-discovered’. “Actually, it’s a channel called UK Gold? Not the BBC this time, they’ve done a documentary and there’s a “Hancock” evening that is scheduled. Jack Dee is hosting.” Indignantly he retorted in an instant “Jack who? Never heard of ‘im” SWiTCH Marriott continued to purr and my pen did likewise in the sketchbook as I continued to go over the commentary that came after the filming of Absolute Beginners. FOR A FLEETiNG MOMENT I WAS FREE…EXiSTiNG iN THAT SPACE BETWEEN. I LOOKED AND SAW A VULNERABLE BOY BEHiND THE MASK. SWiTCH Gary gave me a huge hug as we said our farewells in the car park at Grendon. I thought to myself that it had been such a crucial couple of days in the workshop. “I’ll send you a sketchbook as a thank you Gary. You’ve been great, genuinely, thank you.” He grinned broadly, “absolute pleasure mate, thank you for inviting me.” As I turned my back I considered how lucky I am to do what I’m doing at the moment. Meeting Gary and hearing his story, seeing his work, had been another highlight amongst highlights. My mind shot to the journey home ahead and the ideas that had been percolating around my thoughts in terms of resolving the collages. Having sat in the car and grabbed my phone, I selected the Beastie Boys playlist and once more I went over ways in which I could render the figures appropriately to get across the themes that I’d been dealing with. The lyrics permeated my movement through the country lanes, ‘CAUSE WHAT YOU SEE YOU MiGHT NOT GET, AND WE CAN BET, SO DON’T YOU GET SOUPED UP YET. YOU’RE SCHEMiNG ON A THiNG THAT’S A MiRAGE, I’M TRYiNG TO TELL YOU iT’S SABOTAGE. I howled the words back at the windscreen loudly and with the abandon of someone who was alone in a car on empty country roads and then pondered two of those words more critically MiRAGE and SABOTAGE…What if the figures are transparent (seen but not seen) but also fragmented (broken or damaged), will they be there or not, can I break them up and fragment them in some way? SWiTCH James and I stood at the entrance to the Schneeman exhibition and the assistant before us spoke mischievously before letting us in. He had the hint of a European accent and glint in his eye that suggested he had experienced more than he would be willing to tell anyone. “Have you seen the work of Carolee before?” he enquired brightly. James responded first, “I haven’t”. I interjected immediately to prevent a long-winded introduction. “I have though and we’ve talked about it before coming here today.” The assistant fixed his piercing eyes on me before breaking out into a wide smile that was maintained throughout the following question, “ah, so you’ve talked to your friend about sex, death, torture, pain, violence and depression?” We laughed nervously and confirmed that we were aware of what lay ahead in the show, he gestured us forward without the smile slipping from his face, “all good then, do enjoy!” SWiTCH WE LiVE OUR LiVES iN A MiRROR WHERE THE REFLECTiON iS SEEN THROUGH OTHER PEOPLE SWiTCH Tony was getting tired of my presence and probably had enough of my positive disposition, still I continued with my tales of the latest work at Grendon, “I got two films made last week. Jake and James helped and we worked with one of the psychodrama therapists, Mike Chase. Really pleased with what came out so far. Did you ever work with a neutral mask Tony?” His expression barely altered but the contempt in his response was predictable in its bluster, “No I did not…neutral mask indeed, dear me. My acting techniques were derived from natural ability mate, I didn’t need all that Stanislavsky workshop nonsense!” A pigeon landed on his plinth and stared at us both for a second before walking away in search of some crumbs. “The neutral mask gave us a way to explore the mirror and a way of confronting the reflection. Whilst emotions ran high it wasn’t about emotions at all…it was about the moment, about the sensation experienced in that few seconds of seeing the reflection, no past…no future…just the moment.” Tony looked at me with that stoney stare of his, “Since when have you been interested in making work like this? It’s not like you to open yourself up in your work. You’re an artist that hides behind what others have done. You’ve made a habit of borrowing other people’s clothes…you’ve borrowed mine enough times!”
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.