The United States makes up 4.4 percent of the world’s population, yet it houses 22 percent of the world’s criminals. The difference in these percentages is staggering and it speaks volumes to the failing state of the justice system in the United States. The U.S. penal system often traps criminals through its many inefficiencies and failings long after they should have been free. It can even be seen to fuel white supremacy and further victimize the poor in the United States. Many criminals enter the system and find that it’s a maze out of which they can never emerge. Once they enter the system they can never cease to be a part of it. Artist Sam Durant saw this problem and used his art as the vehicle to shed light on a broken system.
Sam Durant is a Los Angeles based, artist who addresses political and social issues through his multimedia art and has art in many museums and galleries around the world. Through the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, Open Source, he was able to put his public art and political critique idea into action.
On October 1st of this year, Durant constructed a 40 by 40 foot maze he named “Labyrinth”. The maze was constructed of attached chain link fence making the art relatively blank and see through. The maze is located across the street from Philadelphia’s City Hall. Even its placement speaks volumes. Here is a piece of art criticizing the way the criminal justice system is run positioned directly in front of the city’s hub of power. The placement is also important because the art is occupying a space that is usually seen as a “failed public space”. This further emphasizes that if people can neglect and ignore the very public space around them, they can surely and even more effectively neglect and ignore the inmates trapped in jails and the U.S. penal system.
The “Labyrinth” itself began as a blank canvas, or at least as a blank chain link fence. Durant thought it was important that people be able to add their own experiences and knowledge about the prison system. He even reached out to many current prisoners from the Graterford maximum security prison and their families to get an inside view of the system and to add credibility to his work. Durant strongly believed that his art should be accessible to the public and encouraged visitors to walk through the structure and even leave some of themselves behind. After being open to the public for just a short amount of the time, the “Labyrinth” soon lost its blank see through nature. Soon the whole structure was made opaque by the letters, art, and other contributions of the public. The contributions included notes that said things such as, “We are losing our future,” and “I never want to be on the inside again,” as well as art affixed to the wall and strips of ribbon and cloths tied through the links. The art even got other artists involved. For instance, performance artist and activist, Michael Ta’Bon spent two nights sleeping on the floor next to “Labyrinth” to show his support.
The name and concept of the art itself has historical meaning that goes beyond a catchy title. The most notable of historical Labyrinths is from the myths of Ancient Greece. In the much told story, the Labyrinth traps the Minotaur, a mythical beast with the head of a bull and the body of a man for all eternity. This choice of name further emphasizes the trapping and isolating nature of the U.S. penal system and the ridiculous impossibility of escape for any of its victims. Although this piece of art wasn’t crime in it of itself, it is an interesting use of art to call crime into focus. This art managed to engage the public in a problem that most try to ignore and it also engaged the system that it protested through its location and extreme visibility. In this way art and crime once again meet, this time with art championing the very people who commit crimes.
The project lasted from October 1st 2015 until Sunday, November 1st of the same year and was located in Thomas Paine Plaza at the Municipal Services Building, Center City, Philadelphia.
For more information on the project or artist: http://hyperallergic.com/249555/a-maze-in-philadelphia-focuses-attention-on-the-hidden-cruelty-of-us-prisons/ and http://opensource.muralarts.org/artists/#/sam-durant/