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Review: Insider Art (1)

Here’s the first of two reviews of the provocative current show at the ICA. This one’s by artist Craig Kao who most recently exhibited in the to take a-way (one) exhibition at the Nolias Gallery. I think his review raises some interesting questions about the role of the ICA in the curation of the work, and what, if any, are their moral responsibilities for the future of the artists involved. I’ll post the second review later today!

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

A friend’s father came for her graduation ceremony this year. Apparently he’s the warden of a prison institution in middle Taiwan. So it was hard to not to make strange assumptions before I met him – after films like The Clockwork Orange and The Shawshank Redemption, I thought he must be some tough guy who sees all the wrong in the world. But when I met him he was just an average man, with two cameras, no strange tattoo, no hidden pocket watch. He took so much proud footage of his daughter’s graduation, and spent the rest of the time recording everything London had to offer him. Later on that day his video recorder was stolen on the London Underground (those thieves didn’t know who they were messing with). I forgot to take him to ICA, but he must have been feeling rough at the time anyway.

Normally you only get to see prisoners’ art on late night Open University broadcasts, or on some rare Channel four programme. Insider Art consists of several Koestler Award prize winners from prisons and other institutions around the UK. The ICA provides a rare opportunity for them, inviting high profile curator Dr. Mark Phillips and artist Grayson Perry (who incidentally announced “I could easily have been a serial killer if I hadn’t been an artist”) to judge the work. This golden team will certainly boost the appeal of the show for a greater art audience.

It was quite unexpected to see such mixture of works from oil painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramic and textile. But it’s no surprise to see a few portrayals of policemen and Tony Blair. The works are humourous and come with a touch of innocence. They’re straight forward, done with a deadpan spirit, and not really strained by heavy art theory, or lost within the discourse of the art market. The simplicity of the work perhaps is the strength the show relies on. The work does reflect Grayson Perry in many ways (not by looking like a serial killer) – works convey a sense of dark or twisted humour, they’re illustrative, a little bit disturbed, they make and clever use of materials and subject matter, and they’re very British.

“Prison is the only place where working-class men are encouraged to make art,” claims Jeremy Deller, who also features prison art in his Folk Archive Project. Admiring highly finished work like Joseph Moran’s Man on Motorbike (from Maghaberry Prison), the anonymous wooden dinosaur The Chase (from Broadmoor Hospital) and a dragon made from left-over hole punch paper, it’s clear these works have a serious craftsmanship about them, and it’s kind of disturbing trying to imagine how long they spent on the work.

Perhaps the real discourse and hierarchy of the show is just too interesting and shouldn’t be overlooked by the brilliant yogurt box cow (upstairs). The question is, what is the responsibility of ICA in this show? What will happen to these artists/prisoners after the show? Is it just a one off event to open up a new curatorial debate about the value of art, and challenge the current value of art? And if any of the participant artists made a living out of what they make would they no longer be an ‘insider’? Will they pick a star from Insider Art who can have the privilege of showing at the ICA every year like Tino Segal? Will the prisoners have chance to take part in curating the show? Can the notion of this collaboration develop further? I think there are still many possibilities, and this show is just an early starting point.

What made the warden come all the way here from Taiwan? (Definitely not the London Underground.) He came for no other reason than to celebrate his daughter’s graduation ceremony in mid summer, and to celebrate the achievements of many others.

Craig Kao

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