Prison Art: the Photography of James Casebere

While researching the topic of the visual culture of incarceration I was reminded of the work of contemporary artist James Casebere. His photographs bridge a link between Piranesi, the Panopticon and the post-modern practice of Extraordinary Rendition.

Since the 1980s, James Casebere’s photographs have been transporting viewers into ambiguous, evocative, and surreal environments. As such Casebere is considered to be one of the pioneers of “constructed photography”.

Studio View 2009 © James Casebere

Over the past 30 years he has been involved with making table-top models of suburban housing schemes, underground sewer systems and prisons out of modest materials, such as Styrofoam, plaster, and cardboard. He then dramatically lights these constructions and carefully positions his camera to manipulate the composition and ominous mood of the resulting photograph. Casebere has consistently devised increasingly complex models and photographs them in his studio. Based solidly on an understanding of architecture as well as art historical and cinematic sources, Casebere’s abandoned spaces are hauntingly evocative.

Panopticon Prison 3 © James Casebere

Particularly evocative to me are his prison series. In re-making the prison as a model, Casebere questions the meaning of incarceration. The architecture, the social ideals it embodies, and the technique of the artist are all emphasised as constructs of a particular place and time. Devoid of human figures, the constructions invite viewers to project into and inhabit the space.

Caseberes intent is not to give an exact resemblence of the original building that it’s construction is inspired from, but to use it as a visual aesthetic to communicate a critique on solitary confinement and imprisonment. Yet through Casebere’s recent inclusion in Extraordinary (2008), an exhibition at the Helga de Alvear gallery in Madrid exploring the controversial topic of Extraordinary Rendition, his work is making even more of a political statement.

Flooded cell 2, 2008. © James Casebere

Casebere’s photos of what he calls Flooded Cells conjure up allusions to prisons. The vaulted ceilings make the images somewhat reminiscent of Piranesi’s fictitious prisons (carceri), yet the claustrophobic and oppressive singular cells also reference the Panopticon and the method of torture by simulated drowning which has been revived in recent times. Here Casebere references the fact that under the new rules of extraordinary rendition, physical and psychological torture is justified. Spanish Inquisition-like methods of torture get toned down and given new names, like ‘waterboarding’, in an attempt to disguise their true meaning.

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This entry was posted in art in place and the place of art, Prison Art, Visual culture of Incarceration and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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