Amy Elkins’s exhibition Black is the Day, Black is the Night, at the Cress Gallery at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, explores her relationship with five men who have spent decades in maximum security prisons, much of that time in solitary confinement. Through photography, video, sound, and objects, Elkins creates a world of the imprisoned men with whom she corresponds. Their words, drawings, and letters are surrounded by portraits of the men and recreations of their visual and aural memories that obscure and layer their experiences. The works unpack memory, the multiplicity of its roots and permutations as its holders are forcibly removed from those places, people, times, through enforced solitude.
In the large piece, Parting Words, she re-anchors that created world within the world outside of prison. The 531 portraits of the prisoners executed in Texas since 1976 are created with their last recorded words. As those words slowly breathe into life the obscured photographs, they push us back into the world outside of the imagined worlds of memory. The words are communications to those who remain in prison and those of us outside. They are an explicit grounding in the consequences of the prison system in the lives of those people within it and their family, friends, and loved ones, the deadly toll it extracts from our communities.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander writes, “‘We can have no significant understanding of any culture unless we also know the silences that were institutionally created and guaranteed along with it.’ Nowhere is that observation more relevant in American society today than in an analysis of the culture of mass incarceration” (quoting Gerald Sider). Alexander is writing of the silence of individual prisoners while in prison, the ways they are kept outside of economic, housing, political, and social opportunities after their release, and of the silent systems of legislation, policing, prosecution, and imprisonment that uphold and enforce the criminal justice system.
Elkins’s exhibition attempts to break the first silence, re-centering five mens’ voices and words, using their experience to develop the works through which she manifests the changes she observes in the men as they spend years in solitary confinement. The repetition of final words recreates hundreds of faces, magnifying a moment into lifetime. In the middle of the exhibition, Elkins has recreated a full-size solitary confinement cell. It is only revealed in the context of the larger constellation of works, not as origin or culmination. By rooting it within the context of the surrounding work, she prioritizes her correspondents’ experiences, memories, poems, and drawings. For the viewer, their complex, human lives are primary over their status as prisoners.
I do not believe Elkins must be an activist to work with prisoners or the prison-industrial complex. She frames the exhibition as the aesthetic expression of personal relationships she has developed with five prisoners, and it is successful as such. As an aesthetic experience, Elkins has created a compelling exploration of what it means for us to live with the effects of and tacitly support the carceral state.
She also “hopes that these projects brings some light to topics and issues about capital punishment and juvenile incarceration, the inequity that bears upon their application from state to state, and the legal and social debate about race and economic level that surrounds this discussion today.” It certainly sheds light on those topics, but it does not push the viewer to action as other prison- and prisoner-related work by artists (Tamms Year Ten, Prisoners’ Inventions) or work towards other criminal justice reform and prison abolition efforts happening around the country and the world.
There is great need for awareness of the ravages of the criminal justice system on individuals and poor, non-white communities, of the abuse of solitary confinement, of the enormous profits being made at the expense of these communities and the theft of their lives. It is vital that a wider public sees and understands the impacts of the prison system. There must be action beyond that awareness, however. We must recognize the role we have played in the creation and maintenance of those systems and work to change or abandon them. There is a role for art and artists at every point along that journey.