Hanging's too good for them

A group of American artists have taken over one of the nation's most notorious jails.
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Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary once defined a movement. Its spoke-and-hub design was invented by the British architect John Haviland in 1828. Within 50 years, 300 prisons had been built on the same pattern. Entering the jail this September, visitors stepped from warm sunlight into a space that's dank and crumbling. Every corner seems to house a ghost and you soon believe some died in pain.

An inmate brought here in the 19th century had scant awareness of any sunshine. They arrived in thick hoods and were escorted to solitary confinement. Each cell had an enclosed exercise yard of its own and convicts never saw fellow prisoners. If they had to be moved around, the hoods were replaced. The solitude drove many inmates to madness.

Eastern State was supposed to provide an atmosphere of Christian penitence. The monastic theme is found in arched ceilings and cells which are organised with spartan symmetry. The Quakers created the prison, the first in the world to place criminals in long-term confinement. They saw the jail as a humane alternative to floggings or involuntary amputations, the more usual punishments of the day. In truth, it seems to have been a charnel house of the mind, killing the spirit of many inmates as it reduced them to quivering wrecks. Charles Dickens paid a visit in 1842 and was appalled. He said he would prefer a flogging to the "slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain".

With a sharp metallic sound the door has just closed on cell number 58 and it's easy to see what Dickens meant. The air seems to have been sucked out, but the vacuum is soon filled with claustrophobia. You have just become a live exhibit. This cell and its next-door neighbour is part of an unorthodox art show at the penitentiary called "Prison Sentences - The Prison as Site, the Prison as Subject". On entering cell 58 the door is closed automatically for four minutes; other visitors can watch the temporary prisoner's reactions on a video monitor in cell 60. The two- cell installation is called A Holy Experiment and it was devised by the New York artist Beth B, one of 17 artists who collaborated on the 14 exhibits in the show.

The door to cell 58 is decorated with neon light which beckons the visitor inside, like a roadside diner. The lights spell out "The Holy Experiment", which quotes the language used by the Quakers to describe their prison. "I wanted each visitor to re-enact the two underlying principles of prison life," says Beth B. "The piece is all about confinement and surveillance." Once cell 58 re-opens, its atmosphere lingers next door through the surveillance monitors where a soundtrack plays several voices that implore or threaten or preach. The effect conspires to make visitors feel they are still being watched - by guards, by prisoners from another century. It's spooky and compelling.

"We wanted to immerse prisoners in the reality of prison life, using different mediums," says the show's curator, Julie Courtney. "The penitentiary is also a monument of great significance. When it was first built it quickly became one of the most famous buildings in the world. Part of our goal was to start a discussion about how contemporary art helps us to understand historic sites."

Left to its own devices Eastern State would be a stark corpse, trees poking through its ribcage to open its heart to the sky. All its sounds could be read as echoes, distant cries from the victims of a cruel experiment. With "Prison Sentences" in place it becomes something else, a dialogue between codes of punishment from two different centuries.

To enter cell block three is to be consumed in sound, at complete odds with the prison's original intent. Why Malcolm Has to Read by Homer Jackson and Mogauwane Mahloele engages an entire wing in a soundtrack of music, dialogue, poetry and theatrical re-enactments in different languages, including four African tongues. The cell block is decked with clear plastic strips painted with a black X. For its first 50 years the penitentiary kept a rule of silence. Prison guards wore socks over their shoes and food carts had wheels covered with leather to eliminate their noise. Prisoners who broke the rule of silence were punished. Often they were locked for hours between the inner and outer doors of their cells, a space that is less than 18 inches wide and below six feet in height.

Homer Jackson says he can hear the screams of those inmates in his soundtrack, but the cacophony has another purpose. "Before the show, the prison was open to visitors just to tour," says Jackson (it still is, four days a week). "I was unhappy watching the ease with which visitors walked through the empty jail. I felt the building was lying about prison life, just as inmates and guards lie about what it's really like. I wanted to confront that lie." That he does, and his installation is much closer to the sounds of a modern prison. By bringing Eastern together with its offspring the visitor is pushed to see punishment as a thread pulled through history, as though crime were a disease with evolving remedies.

In Soliloquy Malcolm Cochran tries to get closer to the personal experience of prison. Several women were committed to Eastern in its early years, and Soliloquy is also a monument to them. The exhibit begins with a mass of braided hair laid like a sleeping head on a metal prison cot. The braid then works its way up and out of the cell's skylight - a facility provided in each unit so that prisoners could lift their souls to Christ. Cochran's braid is not destined for heaven; its objective is earthly escape as it crosses the roof of the prison cell and heads for the prison yard and the 40ft walls beyond.

This image is effective because so much is missing: the woman's body, the portion of the braid that lies outside the cell. It seems to speak more about what's left behind once a prisoner is released. The woman seems to be lost in the interminable stretch of prison time. Cochran reinforces this with a small video monitor in a corner. On the screen a woman perpetually braids and unbraids her hair. The two women are always separated, just like the original prisoners. Watching the braid sneak from the cell, and then turning to the screen, it's hard to avoid feeling the agony a cell's window must cause its occupant. The closeness of escape, perpetually distant.

Bring art to a prison and it's hard to escape the presence of Oscar Wilde. Eastern does not resist the temptation. Virgil Marti says his exhibit explores the relationship between Wilde's homosexual nature and the repressive society in which he lived. Marti's installation also covers a cell block and begins with a patch of sunflowers on guard and a ceramic plaque. Inside the block a spread of silk lilies covers the floor and leaves a winding path to a cell that commemorates Wilde's imprisonment 100 years ago. To remember Wilde's love of the surface and superficial, Marti covered the bare walls with hand-printed paper in Arts and Crafts designs. Quotations from Wilde are arranged between the sheets of wallpaper.

At first sight this project inspires mirth; it looks far too much like a Laura Ashley store waiting for merchandise. Taken alongside the other exhibits it gradually exercises more power, especially with the prison bed in the centre of the cell on which Marti has stretched a white velvet cover. The harsh realities of the jail bear down on the softer images in the cell and they become more menacing. After a while it's easy to see why prison did so much damage to Wilde's mind.

The other artists include Jonathan Borofsky and Christina Kubisch. When the show closes at the end of October, all the exhibits will be dismantled. All that will be left then is the jail itself. A palace of penitence which casts a long shadow. Standing at the centre of the penitentiary where cell blocks spin off like tunnels to hell, it's obvious the jail itself is still the most powerful exhibit of all.

n 'Prison Sentences' is at the Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, USA to 29 Oct