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Review: Insider Art (2)

Here’s my take on the show – scroll down to Review (1) for an alternative viewpoint by Craig Kao.

Exhibition: Insider Art
ICA, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH
12 July – 9 September (daily 12pm-7.30pm)

I’ve been struggling with the Insider Art exhibition at the ICA because it’s hard to know how to frame it. The two hundred works in the show were selected from around 3,000 entries sent by open submission to the Koestler Trust this year by detainees in prisons, psychiatric hospitals and other secure units in Britain. It’s Koestler’s annual exhibition but this year there’s a twist: they’re showing it at the ICA, they’ve invited big Art names to select for and curate the show, and they’ve given it a big Art title.

It looks like the exhibition is trying to function in three separate ways at once. It’s a showcase for the dedicated work of sometimes technically and conceptually accomplished detainees for whom making artwork is a rare opportunity for creative self-expression. It’s evidence of the work of the Koestler Trust, an organisation that aims to demonstrate the positive value for prisoners of achieving something positive and being recognized for it. And it expresses the perspective of the established artists and curators who designed the exhibition. But I don’t think the three players quite see eye to eye, and there are one or two uneasy compromises lingering.

Prison Life


Greyson Perry was on the selection panel and he briefly mentioned a concern that this year’s system encouraged seeing the artworks as found objects and the curators as artists. He swiftly moved on with an unresolved ‘I hope not’, but he raises a good point about the effect of doubly recontextualising the work, not only taking it out of its original institutions but putting it into the aggressively Contemporary Art context of the ICA.

In straightforward terms of publicity, kudos and visitor numbers the move is billed as a big step up for the Trust. But for now at least, whether or not the Koestler Awards are “making it into the mainstream” as Iain Aitch announces in his Guardian Online review, it certainly isn’t the case for the artists themselves. In almost every review I’ve read there’s been a strong feeling of ‘them and us’, with ‘us’ being either the general law-abiding public or the all-seeing, all-knowing art crowd, and ‘them’ always remaining the criminals: the baddies with soft hearts. Perhaps it’s impossible not to read histories into the work since the background of the artists is so definitively emphasized – after all the show’s only theme is that all the participants are detainees, and each has their institution listed on the wall alongside their name. The provocative title of the show with its implicit reference to outsider art encourages this feeling too, and all in all it’s tempting to see the whole hang as a tabloid excursion into pop criminal psychology.

The reference to outsider art in the title also introduces some of the more theoretical concerns of the exhibition, by making the assumption that outsider art is what we’re looking at here. How do we define outsider artists, and how might we mark their crossover into mainstream art, if that’s something that can ever happen? What are the implications of imposing the term on an artist – or, more startlingly, on two hundred almost completely unrelated artists? Calling it all outsider art is a big assumption to make with no questions asked and it feels uncomfortable and even patronising as Greyson Perry suggested. I’d be interested to know how the work would fare without the label. The Whitechapel’s 2006 exhibition Inner Worlds Outside brought up the same question, showing works by outsider and established artists together and trying to minimize any distinction between them. The result was quieter and more respectful of the artwork than Insider Art. There’s no denying that much of the work in the current show is engaging, skillful, challenging and enjoyable, and would look quite at home in a degree show or contemporary art gallery. But it feels like this is missing the point, and that there’s something productive the work would be able to offer if only it were positioned within the context of contemporary art in such a way that it’s able to speak for itself, as itself, and without being dazzled by the fact of what it is.

I can’t help feeling that the formal treatment of the show makes it difficult to consider the works other than as placeholders in a curatorial exercise, and that in this respect any work taken from contained institutions and placed in the ICA would have had the same effect. The artists will individually and independently continue to benefit from their participation in the show and the process of art-making itself, but in terms of ‘mainstream’ contemporary art, it remains a show more for the curators than the artists.

Tamarin Norwood

One Response

  1. Correspondences is a blog about art, culture, and travel in Switzerland and beyond.

    http://www.olgaistefan.wordpress.com

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