Locked up in the Necropastoral: Michal Chelbin's Sailboats and Swans

by on Nov.02, 2012

“Two inmates sentenced for violence and theft, Juvenile Prison for Girls, 2008”

“Yana sentenced for theft. Juvenile Prison for girls, Ukraine, 2009” Michal Chelbin

Depending on the havoc struck by Sandy, the Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York will be displaying Michal Chelbin’s striking photography show “Sailboats and Swans” until December 22. The title refers to the pastoral and fantastic fabrics and wallpapers which clothe the bodies and prisons in which Chelbin’s subjects, juvenile and female offenders, are incarcerated.  In the irrational pastoralia of these cellblocks, boys sleep in military barracks under bucolic murals; girls convicted for assault pose in flowered dresses.  The press release suggests,

These contradictions of life in prison abound in girls’ flowery dress prison uniforms, murderers working as nannies to other women’s babies in the new mothers’ prison, young girls serving time alongside grandmothers – perhaps witness to their own futures, and the mesmerizing human blend of fear and cruelty in the boys’ and mens’ prison – where big tattooed bodies are now zombie-like, worn down by the daily travails of trying to survive being locked up in a world devoid of hope.

With Sandy’s necropastoral proliferation bringing its damage to Manhattan, I’m sure none of our New York Montevidayans can take in this show for me and report back. But many images from this show are available on- line, and I find them extremely moving. In the ‘noplace’ of prison these incredibly youthful bodies are suspended from temporal linearity. The prisoners are “witness to their own futures” randomly removed from and reassigned new biological roles (murderers minding the babies of other mothers), locked up in kitsch landscapes in which fabrics and wallpaper have as much (or as little) agency as the human bodies themselves. The faces of the models are impassive yet something sears from these photographs, a force of life and/or death which, in the no-time of prison, can find no natural body but courses from surface to surface, form to form, looking for an egress but only finding the picture plane. As Artaud notes, “A little dead girl says: I am the one convulsed with horror in the live woman’s lungs. Get me out of here at once. ” The pain entrapped in these photos cannot exit through a punctum but saturates every object, frond, fabric, and form within the photo itself, everything trapped in its pane, like the bubble in Bishop’s Sonnet who can only find egress from the poem in that final exclamation point:

Caught – the bubble
in the spirit-level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
undecided.
Freed – the broken
thermometer’s mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

Perhaps pain is like this frantic bubble, trying to push out of the photo via a Barthian punctum, yet finding its level always cruelly replenished, its impossible economy never reduced.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Carina

    when is at-once in prison’s no-time? and how is the anti-uniform timeless?

    the flowered dress and the pastoral mural have something in common: is the nature in the un-natural the punctum? how is a delinquent supposed to address the world that continues to make its endless cycle entirely regardless of the cessation of their own?

    in prison time is optical. it operates only as it is watched, and exists solely in the consciousness of the watcher. the in-mate is irrelevant in the non-time system, the only thing that matter is the fashion in which time is made; arbitrary systems imposed upon the paradigm of a day which isn’t.

    the girls in the photos are arrested for theft. what have they stolen? are they the waifs from les mis? are they the subjects of lee edlemen’s “fuck this?” have the waifs themselves been stolen, and if so, from what, or whom?