Ikon Gallery’s latest programme introduces two individual exhibitions, showcasing the work of two seemingly discordant artists, packaged together tonight in a single opening event.
First up is Birmingham-born Thomas Bock (1793-1855), in the inaugural UK exhibition of his work. This collection forms a sort of retrospective, although it mainly spans the period after 1823 when Bock, an illicit abortionist, was convicted of ‘administering herbal concoctions with the intent to induce miscarriage’ and shipped to Australia for fourteen years. Bock was convicted during the tumultuous period of British settlement, and his reputation as one of the most important artists working during the colonial years is clearly identifiable in the many drawings, paintings and photographs on display. These works are in many ways not just a selection of his artistic output during his time in Australia, but a detailing of the sudden and chaotic change in both his personal and public life as a painter.
This sudden shift is made visible in the first room of the exhibition. One wall contains small landscape drawings of English villages and St. David’s Church (early 1820s), which are either quick sketches en plein air or from memory as he was making the journey from Birmingham to Van Dieman’s Land (now known as Tasmania). These works are small, detailed sketches, which showcase Bock’s skill, whilst the simplistic composition evokes the sense that they are distillations of his love for his England – the rural countryside scenes are idyllic as only memories can produce. Opposite are small portraits of aborigines; Larratung (larratong) (1832-1835) and Untitled, Wurati (woreddy) (1831) stare confidently outwards, meeting the gaze of the viewer, whilst forcefully confronting the earlier images of Bock’s homeland on the opposite wall. Wurati has a dominant posture and a commanding presence that confidently acknowledges the pride with which he holds himself. Taken together with the landscape sketches, these images confront the ideology of their time, of the undignified and primitive aboriginal people, and this curatorial trope heightens their aggressive gaze.
The exhibition separates several of Bock’s images into categories such as nudes, frontal portraits, landscapes, portrait profiles and families. Clear contrasts and comparisons are made between the English settlers and the aboriginal people, with the physical juxtapositions seeming to reinforce the democratic way in which Bock depicted both.
There are several pencil drawings of domestic scenes, including Woman and baby (1840), where a young woman is holding a small baby in their home. Here, the domestic space is the female space. Study of an aboriginal family (1832-35) is similar in and style – the small pencil drawing is an intimate depiction of family life. Whereas the English woman and baby are alone in the domestic space, the aboriginal family shows the father holding a spear in the foreground, whilst the mother and small child sit in the background. This is an outdoor scene and one that clearly identifies the roles taken within the family, with the father as the hunter and the mother the caregiver. Bock has treated this image in much the same way as the English familial scene and in doing so has imparted much of their character into the drawings.
There is a depth of warmth in these portraits of aboriginal people. Mithina (1842) is a watercolour portrait of a young Aborigine girl. It is a full-frontal portrait in an oval shape that replicates the intimacy of miniature paintings. The girl is wearing a red dress; her hands are clasped together and she is smiling outwards meeting the gaze of the viewer. Beneath that smile belies a self-consciousness that hints at the awkwardness she must have felt posing for a white man who is clearly in the position of authority, even if he was lower in rank to many of his colonialist countrymen.
In much the same way Bock treated the aborigine portraits, his portraits of the middle-class English women are skilfully treated – accents of white on lace in Woman with bonnet possibly Mrs. Georgina Butler (1840s) add characterful elements to the piece and accentuate her self-importance. However, his portraits of the aborigines are treated with much more depth and understanding. Where the Woman with bonnet included her accoutrements and trappings of wealth, the portraits of aboriginal people hold their weapons and wear their tribal clothing as a badge of honour. Their gaze does not arrest our sympathy, but asks us to look at them as we would our own countrymen and women – not as savages, ‘noble’ or otherwise, but as individuals.
Whilst Bock’s images of aboriginal people can be deemed dignified and aesthetically interesting, they are emblematic of the seriousness with which he took himself as an artist. The three hand-coloured daguerreotypes in the last room of the exhibition hint at his miniaturist background, but show his commitment to developing new techniques and processes. Together with the handwritten personal colour chart, they are evidence that Bock considered himself an artist rather than a convicted criminal. Van Dieman’s Land has become his home rather than his prison, and similarly he depicts the settlers and aboriginal people as individuals with respected traditions rather than as the warden and prisoner binary that so often characterises the period of the British settlement. With Bock’s personal understanding of this situation, he treats the portrait sitters with equal respect.
In much the same way as Bock depicts people as individuals, Edmund Clark, in his exhibition In Place of Hate, reappraises the prison system and the figure of the inmate. Edmund Clark is Ikon’s official artist-in-residence at HMP Grendon in Buckinghamshire, a role he has taken on since 2014 and will continue until 2018. Established in 1962, HMP Grendon uses a democratic and therapeutic approach to enacting punishment, asking the inmates to accept their prison sentence and to take responsibility for their crime.
Clark uses a sequence of rooms to portray the innovative prison system at Grendon. What struck me whilst walking through the rooms was that the structure and layout mirrors Foucault’s theory of the Victorian Panopticon – a prison design in which the centrally located warden can see everything at all times. Clark himself offers this view about the prison system at HMP Grendon:
This panopticon effect can clearly be seen in the second room, which has a circle of chairs with three video monitors on top of them. These video monitors represent the prisoners in group therapy and once I sat down, I too felt compelled to start talking and listening to the voices of the video as if I were joining in. The videos use actors to recreate stories from Greek tragedies. Mythologizing the prisoner’s experiences like this is an interesting way to convey their trauma and background without revealing private information. On the walls around the circle of chairs are posters entitled, ‘Therapeutic Community Model of Change’ and ‘Personality Pathway’. The posters provide a psychological background to the prison system and offer a pattern of abuse that suggests a prisoner has learnt behavioural methods from other people.
The prisoner mug shot is examined as an undermining and problematic image. Clark uses the image of a flower throughout the exhibition, to stand in for the traditional photograph of the prisoner. For me, the flower is a metaphor for how the inmate at HMP Grendon is treated and arguably how the penal system should consider the convicted criminal; much like a flower, the inmate can grow and flourish to their full potential. The first room contains a large white u-shaped structure that displayed pressed flowers. For me, each flower poignantly represents each prisoner at HMP Grendon.
The next room further explores the problematic issue of the public image of the prisoner. Four rectangular screens hang down from the ceiling and each one is playing a video that shows the inside and the outside parameters of the prison building. We see the interior from the perspective of an inmate and some parts of the videos are blurred, which is reminiscent of CCTV footage on news reports where the offender has been pixelated.
What looks like an empty prison building is populated by these pixelated figures, creating an eerie and dystopian atmosphere, ultimately alluding to the erasure of the prisoner from the consciousness of the both the public and the prison system itself. Similarly, the last room projects blurred mug shots of black and white figures onto fabric interspersed with images of flowers. These projections again hang from the ceiling, allowing the viewer to walk among them as if they are people. Our shadows are caught on the fabric and further blur the images. The criminal here appears as an absence. Who are they really? Clark’s exhibition can elicit such questions from the viewer, challenging us to re-evaluate what a prison should do.
The Thomas Bock and Edmund Clark: In Place of Hate exhibitions at Ikon Gallery can be viewed together or separately; they work well in their own right, but taken together can highlight themes of identity and representation. Running both exhibitions concurrently until March 11th 2018, Ikon has presented a unique and thought-provoking exhibition program.
For more on the Thomas Bock exhibition, visit www.ikon-gallery.org/event/thomas-bock
For more on Edmund Clark: In Place of Hate, visit www.ikon-gallery.org/event/edmund-clark
For more on Edmund Clark. visit www.edmundclark.com
For more from the Ikon Gallery, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.ikon-gallery.org