In last week"s New York Times magazine, Wendy Kaminer wrote about the increasing opposition to the death penalty: "Today, according to a Harris survey, 94 percent of Americans believe that innocent people are sometimes convicted of murder. Acknowledging this compelled the public to view those in prison as people, not as categorical predators." Kaminer hit on the crux of the movement towards abolishment of the death penalty. The problem inherent in righting a wrong with a wrong is that not only are mistakes made in determining who did the wrong to begin with, but there"s no humane way to murder another human being. Lucinda Devlin"s photograph illustrating that NYT article displayed an unoccupied electric chair in the center of a stark, white room.
"Electric Chair" by Lucinda Devlin, currently on exhibit at the IMA
Devlin"s The Omega Suites, photographs of American death chambers, from which the Times photograph was borrowed, say more with less. We may drive SUVs and live in quiet neighborhoods, but we still commit the unthinkable under the guise of an evolved civility.
Selections from Devlin"s aforementioned collection are on exhibit alongside photographs from two other bodies of her work, Corporal Arenas and Pleasure Ground, now on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in its Forefront Gallery. Collectively, these unpeopled, lucidly colorful photographs are interior landscapes that speak to things we do to ourselves and each other. Placing these works alongside one another presents a startling picture of the similarities among bizarre rituals.
Is the bright yellow paint in "Electric Chair, Holman Unit, Atmore, AL" supposed to make the experience of dying more aesthetically pleasing? Ironically, "Bath, Pocono Palace, Marshall"s Creek, PA" is more morbid; it"s a heart-shaped hot tub painted in blood red surrounded by red walls. Other rooms and spaces are just as disturbing: for example, a photograph of an anatomy lab is as cold and clinical as an operating room, where bodies are being dissected to be kept alive instead of being analyzed to understand how they once lived. And the similarities between the underwater hotel room in "Jules UnderSea Lodge, Key Largo, FL" and the airtight room in "Lethal Injection Chamber, Nevada State Prison, Carson City, Nevada" go without saying. One person"s pleasure is indeed another person"s pain.
As Michael MacKenzie, assistant professor of art history at DePauw University, writes, "Devlin"s pictures insistently emphasize the order and purpose, the larger design, of the built environment. But while the purposes of these spaces - the pleasure, investigation and punishment of the body - presumably have something to tell us about contemporary life, those anticipated bodies are absent, making empathy or vicarious identification with their imagined experiences impossible." This is what makes these spaces uniquely American: to hide behind obscurity, to mask what is grossly inhuman by the distraction of aesthetic trappings, to get stuck in the outside in order to ignore the horror of what"s actually being done to the spirit, collectively and individually.
Devlin, who now lives in Indianapolis, is presenting these pieces together for the first time. Her works have been exhibited internationally, most recently, in the 2001 Venice Biennial and the 2002 Sao Paolo Biennial. Devlin"s photographs are indeed universal: The artist looks at our bodily rituals through the lens of American culture, in all its obliviousness. The exhibit was organized by Katherine Nagler, curator of the Forefront Exhibitions.