catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 14 :: 2005.07.15 — 2005.07.28


The end of the tunnel

There are many schools of thought regarding how much an artist should talk about his or her artwork. Here's my school: A work of visual art, created for the purpose of contemplation, may offer suggestions or clues to the world of ideas that have given birth to it, but once complete it can no longer fully encompass or articulate those ideas. When the final touches are made, a work of art takes on a life more or less independent of the concepts that incubated and nourished it. Good work will allude to its creative lineage, while inviting new ideas and suggesting new meanings through the imagination of the viewer. I'm offering only what gave birth to this work of art, not a definitive interpretation of it.

Eastern State Penitentiary: Eastern State Penitentiary's Board of Commissioners hoped the building's grim facade would instill fear in the hearts of lawbreakers. "The exterior of a solitary prison should exhibit, as much as possible, great strength, and convey to the mind… the misery which awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls..." Book of Minutes of the Board of Commissioners. March 26, 1822. Photo: Albert Vecerka, 2001.

The year was 1830, and sitting on a small rise called Cherry Hill, a half-mile north of what was the young city of Philadelphia, loomed the foreboding façade of the newly constructed Eastern State Penitentiary. It was built to look to the outsider like a threatening gothic fortress. It towered above the rolling fields as an ominous reminder, wrought in cold, dark stone, of what terrible consequences awaited the horse thief, pickpocket and fornicator.

Restored Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary: When Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, in was the model for prison reform. Each inmate would spend his sentence in a large, vaulted sky-lit cell complete with central heat and a flush toilet. This cell was restored to its 1830s appearance in 2001. Photo: Tom Berault, 2001.

The terrifying exterior, however, gave few clues about the experiment in merciful justice and reform that Eastern State was intended to be. Within the walls one found clean, whitewashed cellblocks designed and built to resemble the airy, transcendent architecture of European cathedrals. Each cell, designed like a miniature chapel, was adorned with a single, round skylight often referred to as "the Eye of God." Each cell was built to accommodate one prisoner in utter solitude for the entirety of their sentence. There was no speaking, no singing, and no tapping. No communication of any kind.

Hooded Inmate: Eastern State Penitentiary was the world's first true "Penitentiary." In order to encourage penitence -- or true regret -- in the hearts of criminals, inmates would spend their entire sentence in solitary confinement. On the rare occasion when an inmate left his cell, a hood was placed over his head to ensure his identity would remain anonymous. Ideally, no inmate would ever see the face of another inmate.

The prison was designed around the Quaker theological idea of the "Inner Light." The Quakers believed that the potential for choosing what is good and right lay within the soul of every human. Central to the idea is that "by 'minding the Light,' waiting for ever fuller revelation of divine direction, the illuminated soul may eventually find it natural to live above the power of ordinary temptation." The thought was that by completely isolating the prisoner for introspection, prayer and Bible reading (a prisoner's only reading material), the Inner Light would bring about penitence (hence the moniker "penitentiary", of which Eastern State was the first), reform and redemption.

My introduction to Eastern State Penitentiary, now a national historic site, tourist destination and home to a critically acclaimed art installation program, came through sociologist Tony Campolo. It was on a tour of Philadelphia highlighting many of the sociologically significant sites that have helped shape the city that I've called home for the last four years.

Now, Brother Campolo (along with the Quaker) is no fan of Calvinist theology. He'll tell you so, and I respect him for that. However, based on a few of his comments, he seems to favor an interpretation of the doctrine of total depravity that ends up looking a lot more like the doctrine of total human worthlessness when he's done, and he speaks as if that's the rule among Calvinists. I don't tend to favor his imaginative interpretation. I do believe an unwavering and consuming tendency to disobey our creator permeates every layer of the person. I don't see the theological connection between that, and the worth of a clearly beloved creation.

My first experience with Eastern State Penitentiary was framed by this theological debate: on the one hand is the Quaker idea that redemption begins within the intrinsically good soul of the individual, and on the other is the Calvinist idea that we must be called out of our total sinfulness by God's irresistible grace. My sculptural installation at the prison titled The End of the Tunnel became a playful theological rumination on these ideas, mediated within the theme of escape.

One memorable image that relates to this same question can be found in the film The Shawshank Redemption (which was inspired in part by a famous tunnel escape from Eastern State). The warden gives the main character, Andy Dufresne, a Bible upon his incarceration with an admonition that "the answer lies within." Near the film's end, after Andy's escape, the warden finds that the Bible has been placed in his safe with a note that reads: "The answer lies within." Inside the Bible, the warden finds a cavity carved from the pages in the shape of the rock hammer used to slowly dig Andy's way to freedom. Andy and the warden saw the problem quite differently from one another and their "answer" to the problem differed accordingly, and dramatically.

The Quakers also believed that the answer lay within. I wanted to question the validity of their evaluation of the nature of the problem of sin. So, finally, I decided to explore this idea of ‘redemption from within,' using the prison itself as analogue for the human condition, while also offering a theological counterpoint rooted in my Calvinist perspective. What I saw shaping up (and I admit that my imagination benefits from delusions of grandeur) was a huge theological debate, contested on an equally monumental architectural front.

And so, first by drawing on photographs and then by using hundreds of feet of two-inch steel pipe painted a glowing safety red as my tunnel-like lines, I began to imagine fantastic escape routes within the prison walls. They lead to nowhere, emerge from impossibly small holes, and eventually they all travel out of sight. They are futile escape attempts. They are absurd little tunnels.

Yet finally, as if by some mysterious, graceful calling, the pipes emerge together at the base of the thirty-five-foot, stone wall and rise in one impossible vertical thrust, up and over. Framed by the end of cellblock four, they resemble a choir of organ pipes, reintroducing a colorful, transcendent music into the cold, quiet cathedral of prisoners. The implied connection with the other pipes offers no hint as to how they have traveled to this point, how they converge beneath the ground or how they manage to scale the impossible wall.

Nevertheless, they are free of the confines of the prison and culminate in a chevron shape on the outside, like a celebratory banner or a giant arrow pointing away from captivity. The pipes conclude by gazing away from the prison like seven periscopic eyes, full of longing, hope and expectation.

Cellblock 5 Gallery: When Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, visitors from around the world marveled at its grand architecture and radical philosophy. With its high arched cathedral and over 1,000 skylights, the building feels more like a religious space, rather than a prison. The penitentiary closed in 1970 and was abandoned for over fifteen years. Photo: Elena Bouvier, 1998.

The proof in the theological pudding, however, was Eastern State Penitentiary's miserable failure a hundred and fifty years ago. Solitary confinement tended to bring about madness rather than redemption. The prison was eventually referred to as "maniac-making" and keeping prisoners in isolation was abandoned less than fifty years after the prison was built.

On page two of the Bible that all of the prisoners were given it reads: "It is not good that the man should be alone..." It made me wonder if it was ever given a careful reading by those who formulated this particular plan for reform. Perhaps if they had, they would have discovered that the answer really did lie within.

Dayton Castleman received a B.A. degree in Art from Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi, and currently works as a campus minister with creative students in downtown Philadelphia. Dayton coordinates The Church studio space for artists, and the Artists in Residence program at Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church located in Fairmount, just south of Eastern State. He currently serves on the board of Christians in the Visual Arts. Dayton, his wife Karen and daughter Anna live in Philadelphia.

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