I’m trying to align what I know about this artwork with what I feel in the face of it. I am not standing inside it, but the photograph of the work produces a powerful sense of containment. At one moment I feel claustrophobic, as if the walls were closing in. But at the next moment I am bathed in blue-green waters, or wrapped in ambient airs, the sun shining down from the cope of heaven or filtered through the surface of the sea.
The artwork is titled Apokaluptein 16389067: II, and it is a permanent installation at the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was completed in 1829. It is considered the world’s first true penitentiary, the model for hundreds that followed all over the world. The United States has always been known for its prisons. De Tocqueville, for example, first traveled to America to report on its systems of incarceration.
Penitentiaries are for the penitent. The method of isolating inmates in solitary cells, the practice of hooding prisoners on arrival and during exercise breaks so as to sustain that isolation, the cell’s skylight suggesting the watchful eye of God—all these measures were designed to work on the soul of the penitent, to reform rather than punish, to draw the offender back toward heaven.
Wikipedia tells me that at its completion “the building was the largest and most expensive public structure ever erected in the United States.” A real jewel in the crown. The Eastern State Penitentiary was closed in 1970 and has now become a museum that houses art by formerly incarcerated artists. This artwork lives at the poisoned heart of America, sweet land of liberty and model of the carceral state.
Apokaluptein 16389067: II is a scaled-down version of a massive work by Jesse Krimes. The original Apokaluptein 16389067 was 15’ x 40’—thirty-nine bedsheets, onto which Krimes transferred images from magazines and newspapers using hair gel and a spoon.
So that’s another thing “I know” about this work. I know it because I read about it in Nicole Fleetwood’s somber Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, a book of horrors illuminated by flashes of beauty.
Krimes was reading Foucault in prison, and Dante. You can see the latter’s three-tiered vision of the cosmos translated by Krimes: the bottom row of sheets packs images of people and products tightly together: the figures seem almost to be climbing over one other, even as each is confined within its own frame. It is a hell and a prison and our earthly existence itself, as reflected in the press and then refracted by Krimes’s reassembly.
The middle tier also depicts a life on earth, halfway between the subterranean and the heavenly. But this surface existence is dominated by female giants, like the impossibly long-limbed figure in red heels that organizes the center of the composition. These outsized women are icons of glamor. They embody the promise of a salvific beauty, a promise so monstrous it can only manifest also as a threat. As if thrown off from the aura of these giantesses there are a multitude of tiny ballerinas, leaping their way into the third tier, a heaven of sorts. But for all the weightless grace of these ballerinas, each is surmounted by a small head cut out from the same material used elsewhere—each a tiny mug shot, as it were. The image and the cell are one.
Krimes was also reading Giorgio Agamben’s book The Kingdom and the Glory during the several years in which he created his work, then smuggled it out of prison piece by piece. In this book, Agamben pushes back into the early Christian era the idea that power is the management of an economy—what Foucault called a governmentality. But that argument entails another—namely, that the function of “glory” in the production of power—the liturgical, spectacular, ceremonial expressions that serve to acclaim and legitimate power—is alive and well in modern democracies. Where once thrones and crowns and purple cloth manifested the fusion of power and grace, now we have complex methods for the manufacture of consent—primary among them the media.
Art is of course one enduring way in which the kingdom acclaims its glory. Consider the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, completed by Giotto and his team in the first years of the fourteenth century.
The Scrovegni family were bankers and this breathtaking fresco work was one way in which that money was laundered. The composition is complex—four tiers of allegorical storytelling, the two primary being the life stories of Christ and of Mary. The idea that a woman of surpassing beauty and purity serves as a mediator between the earthly and the divine is an old one, in other words, and to recognize an avatar of medieval Mariolatry in Krimes’s looming beauties is to begin to fill out Agamben’s thesis.
Look again at Krimes’s installation at the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. It begins to feel like a sickening parody of Scrovegni—same barrel vault, same complete coverage of wall and ceiling, same allegorizing composition. The disused prison cell even has its own throne.
But to suggest that Krimes is providing a parody of how art today glorifies power—where once was Christ and Mary now is Lancôme and Chanel—is not quite right either. Krimes is in dead earnest, and his testament is confirmation of sorts to Agamben’s thesis. As Giotto’s Chapel once was to the banker Scrovegnis, so Eastern State Penitentiary was to the U.S.—an expression of glory meant to acclaim democracy’s power, its commitment to both incarcerating and saving its penitents. That this Penitentiary has become a museum in which art by formerly incarcerated can be visited by the public, and that Krimes has lodged his beautiful and terrifying meditation on the convergence of the cell and the image in the bowels of this building, is yet another turn of the screw in how power finds ways to glorify itself. We are witnessing a structuring of symbolism so sturdy it is beyond parody.