One of the hottest shows in Chelsea these days is at Ricco/Maresca Gallery, one of New York’s premier venues for ‘outsider’ art. The show exposes the inhumane consequences and ethical absurdity of the US prison system from the perspective of Gil Batle, who spent more than 20 years incarcerated in various US facilities. Now that Batle, a Filipino/American, has moved back to the Philippines, he has begun engraving aspects of his experiences in US prisons on ostrich eggs. It is not surprising to drop by Ricco/Maresca and see people circling these individual eggs, some using the magnifying glasses supplied by the gallery, gleaning insights into a horrific experience from which we are largely shielded, but for which we are ultimately responsible.
Deterrence theory seems to be the best explanation as to why punishment occurs. Even though Kant tried to justify punishment as a moral good in itself, it seems that, in reality, we punish people purely to stop others from doing the same harmful things in the future – we punish in order to deter future actions we do not want to see again, often regardless of the state of mind or level of responsibility of the offender in the first place. This seems proved by the fact that, in the USA, people who are obviously and seriously mentally ill are still convicted of crimes and punished by being thrown in jail instead of receiving the psychiatric help they really need. Even if someone is completely insane and not responsible for a crime, juries still feel they have to punish this person, because they perceive that otherwise others will feel they have license to commit the same acts in the future. Once there is a victim, a need for punishment kicks in and this need is not a rational choice – punishment to deter future action seems deeply ingrained in our natures, like our need to reciprocate.
Therefore, judges, prosecutors and juries do not want to hear about the environment of violence, racism and economic deprivation which may have molded a young person into a criminal, they are simply motivated to punish. 1% of Americans are in jail. The NAACP estimates that 1 out of 3 black men in the USA may experience jail at some time in their lives if current trends continue. The USA has 25% of all the world’s prisoners, but is 5th in the world in regard to total population.
When we look at the depictions of life in US prisons in Batle’s work, we see the grimly ludicrous consequences of an entire industry based upon this unquestioned and unexamined impulse to punish regardless of any mitigating factors that would warrant mercy or compassion. The Quakers, of course, a pacifistic Christian denomination which had a huge influence on early American history, objected to the corporal punishment and executions that took place before the establishment of the penitentiary system. The first structure that could be called a modern prison was inspired by Quaker sensibilities and was built in Philadelphia in 1829. It was to be a place of penance – a place where a prisoner would be locked away with his own thoughts to develop sorrow for his action and to change through this process. Instead this led to an illogical and bizarre concept of punishment based of chunks of time in a cage: the worse the crime, the longer the chunk of time.
From Batle’s work we see that the Quaker ideal of a place for self-reflection and change is now replaced overwhelmingly by shanks (home-made knives), racist prison groups, rape and brutal guards. Each of the eggs Batle engraved has a story or theme and the theme is often executed with amazing creativity and figurative thought – as on one egg where two rival gangs initiating a riot are depicted totemically, each member of each differing gang bearing the head of the aggressive animal best representing his gang. The guards are depicted as bees as Batle explains, “They always seemed emotionless… but with a direct, persistent, intention to stop the war…They are organized and relentless... like bees... It doesn’t matter how big, how many or how strong the animal is... The bees ALWAYS win... ” Interestingly, it seems that prison riots mostly seem to occur through rival gangs attacking each other and not through the prisoners, as a whole, realizing any type of fellow feeling and directing their anger toward the authorities locking them in. Eliminating this type of totemic, racially-inspired prison warfare would be to the detriment of the authorities, therefore. In some prisons in the USA, apparently, black and white prisoners may even be segregated into differing units.
In Batle’s “Romeo and Juliet” he tells the story of a prisoner who fell in love with another male prisoner who had seemed to be able to smuggle female hormones into the facility and who truly looked female. His prison gang, however, ordered him to end the relationship (it brought dishonor on the gang) and when he refused, he was brutally murdered (you see several shanks sticking out of his body) and his partner committed suicide. Engraving this visual narrative onto a big ostrich egg creates a cyclical story incorporating the theme of the death and resurrection of love as the story simply repeats itself from beginning of the affair to destruction to beginning…as many times as you wander around the egg.
Another egg references the "Cicada Nymph", an insect that stays buried 13 – 17 years before emerging to mate. “It is unknown what takes place underground for all those years... I relate this idea to how civilians on the outside view inmates serving very long sentences on the inside... Folks on the outside don’t know what we do on the inside.” “Jamestown” refers to a prison where Batle was forced to live ‘dorm’ style: “Living with 40 convicts (every day for a year) under one roof was tense to say the least... I would rather have lived (in) a cell... with bars to protect me from those animals.” “Fraud” depicts, on one side, the circumstances and activities that led Batle to break the law. “On the other side of this egg my time in prison where I did tattoos, tattoo patterns, portraits, greeting cards for convicts.. which they paid for with commissary food, drawing supplies, tobacco, coffee etc. My locker was always full... This also gave me a respectable identity that kept me safe.”
“Naked” is about the ‘cavity check’ – “There is nothing more humiliating and demeaning than the ‘cavity check’.. To be told to ‘squat and cough’ so the guards can look up your anal cavity to make sure you aren’t hiding any contraband up there.. ‘Lift em' up’ is a guards' instruction to lift up your nut sack to make sure your (sic) not hiding anything under there either.” There are 19 of these engraved eggs in the show presenting a wide range of the daily fears and humiliations that constitute a significant part of prison life.
As Batle states in the notes for the show, “The prison ‘artist’ was a commodity... He was like a magician... Even the toughest convicts were in awe at the artists’ skills... I was that commodity... The ability to draw, my age and the fact that I was good at faking it (toughness) to make it... Call it performance art... is how I was able to survive behind those walls... ”. Batle depicts life in a horrific and ridiculous situation created in the name of public safety and security, a preposterous situation reified through the passage of time and now accepted and unquestioned as a social institution and source of economic gain.
On this level, he calls for an examination of the experience inadvertently created by Quakers who wanted to change the world and demands action to change something that has gone horribly wrong. His figurative experiments seem meant to bring home the horror of the experience instead of directing one toward an allegorical interpretation. Yet, there is allegory here in that people are dropped into a hell created by saints where they are forced to abandon all ethics to survive in the hopes they can rejoin and contribute to their society again. It is a warped and sickening form of the hero’s journey that only ends at the conclusion of, basically, an arbitrary period of time set by someone oblivious to the human suffering he/she will cause in the name of justice.
The show has been extended to January 9, 2016.