Part of Clark’s artistic interest lies in identity, and invests in ideas the men might have of themselves as creators, agents and artists rather than patients, prisoners or subjects. His practice focuses on seeing, not seeing and – crucially – what we are permitted to see. Themes of censorship run through his body of work, both restricting and enriching it. Unable, for example, to photograph the prisoners, Clark has used a pin-hole camera to capture their ‘presences’ instead; necessity is the mother of invention, but what is a portrait? What is an artist? And when does something become art?
Pieces made in an art therapy session are framed as by-products of the counselling process rather than ends in themselves. The Art Object, on the other hand, constitutes its own universe. It must be a result of the artistic process – whatever that might be – and of no other. A clay model made one afternoon, in a prison therapy session by a man convicted of assault, is destined to remain only an object. It is not Art. Another sculpture, ostensibly identical but made by different hands or displayed in the ‘right’ context, is critiqued carefully and taken as something with the power to inform or embody some wider truth. It is Art. To make it, you must be an 'Artist'. In this case, perhaps more than any other, the identity of a maker informs the status of what is made. What happens when makers are men stripped of individuality, freedom and visibility? What name should we give to what they do?
Of course, imprisonment is an emotive subject. Part of the function of facilities like Grendon is to remove certain people from wider society. We are not accustomed to thinking about people inside them as people at all; rather, one act or other has removed their right to be considered human. Many people incarcerated have, indeed, demonstrated themselves to be a danger to people around them. Societal narratives about vice, though, and our emotional response to ideas of deviance mean that objective thinking is hard to come by when discussing the rights of prisoners. We are fascinated and appalled by them in equal measure. To be confronted with art work made by criminals is a surprisingly startling proposition. Over the course of his residency, Clark has organised exhibitions of the men’s work - not of pieces from their therapy sessions, but which they’ve made as part of their own practices - within Grendon itself. Sentimental ideas of the Artist in our society mean that it’s aligned with a kind of precious genius, above and beyond normal human fallibility. Being asked to transfer this status, one of our highest accolades, to prisoners, one of the most despised subsections of our communities, has proved challenging for many people - even the prisoners themselves.
Inside Grendon, a man enters into a contract of accountability with those around him. The prison is subdivided into smaller communities based on wings of the building, each functioning as a democracy within the wider structure of the institution. ‘Prisons are a distillation of the society in which they function’, explains Clark below. If so, we have a lot to learn about ourselves from Grendon – much of which Clark has begun to uncover.