Interview: Rubens Ghenov and Jesse Krimes discuss Krimes’ monumental work made over three-years in Federal Prison.
Are you originally from Philadelphia, Jesse?
I’m originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Can you describe the basics of the piece?
Apokaluptein:16389067 is created out of federal prison bed sheets that I tore in half. I used hair gel and plastic spoons to transfer images I cut out of The New York Times onto each sheet. I blended the images together with colored pencils. The entire piece is configured out of 39 torn federal prison bed sheets that collectively measure 15 by 40 feet.
How did you get the piece to the church studios? Strange trajectory, no?
When I was still incarcerated at Fairton Federal Prison and working with other prisoners as the art instructor, Robyn Buseman from The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Restorative Justice Division came in for a visit. While she was there I had the chance to present some of my work and talk to her about my own independent projects and teaching. She told me she would have a job waiting for me when I came home. My second day in the halfway house, I called Robyn and she told me to come down the next day. I went, got the job, and she eventually placed me with artist Benjamin Volta. After working with Ben for a while, I was talking to him about finding a place large enough to install Apokaluptein:16389067. Being the amazing person and artist Ben is, he suggested that I install it at the church so that I could have some place to see it for the first time, and photograph it for my graduate school applications. There is something to be said about coming from a prison environment, basically hell on earth, to working and installing my piece in a church, the opposite of the prison in a way, with the amount of positive support I have received so far.
Can you talk about the process of starting on the idea and mailing out the sheets?
Incarceration marked a moment of personal crisis for me, providing an encounter with difference and generating desire and fear, enlightenment and profound disquiet. Being confined to a cell and a mediated existence, all measure within prison seems to collapse, leaving only time to reflect. This reflection was the catalyst for significant shifts in my thinking that ultimately facilitated my body of work.
Originally, I was creating much smaller pieces where I would draw old master works in graphite onto federal prison bed sheets and then transfer the heads of “offenders” where the religious icons originally were placed. This concept grew into transferring landscape images into the background and then drawing the figures over top of the images, while still transferring the heads of the “offenders”. Eventually the works grew in size and I would transfer multiple images that I would blend together, and draw multiple figures with the transferred heads. I created all of the earth panels first, but after reading Dante’s Divine Comedy and Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory, I decided to use the tryptic structure to complete the image. I began creating corresponding hell and heaven panels to complete each earth depiction.
My process involved smuggling contraband works through the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the United States Postal Service, piece by piece, resulting in a forced Exquisite Corpse with myself. Apokaluptein:16389067 is a series of disembodied prison sheets sutured together, making up a collective installation of dimensions as vast as the history and timeline of my absence.
In order to get the finished sheets out of prison, I had to convince the guards who signed off on every project that the pieces were drawings done on legally purchased canvas from the Dick Blick catalogue. I did this by purchasing one linen canvas out of the Blick catalogue when I first arrived at FCI Fairton. After I purchased this one canvas, I took all the labels off of it and put them on the individual prison sheet I was working on before I mailed it out. After they inspected the piece and the box, I would take the labels back off before actually sending the piece home. I repeated this process over and over.
How long were you in? And how long did it take you to compile and finish your work?
I served 5 years of a 70-month sentence. This specific piece took three years to make, but it grew out of concepts and materials I began exploring and collecting in Dauphin County Prison before I was sentenced.
Did anyone in prison know what you were up to?
Oh Yeah. Most of the other guys I was incarcerated with knew what I was trying to do. They might not have known how large it was going to be but then again, neither did I. The guys would constantly stop by to see what I was working on. The art room is really the central hub of creativity and energy in prison. Some of the guards knew what I was doing and in fact helped me hide and mail out some of the materials, but I still don’t think anyone really understood how large this piece would be. Some guards would allow me special access to the art room when no one else could be in the building. These were really the only times I was not surrounded by hundreds of people. That alone helped me keep my sanity: I cherished those opportunities to work in silence. Most people just thought I was making landscape images on regular canvas that I purchased, not destroying and defacing federal property.
Where did you go to school?
Before I was indicted I went to Millersville University in Lancaster, PA. I was actually an Emerging Artist in Residence there when the United States Government indicted me.
Are you comfortable talking about how you ended up in prison?
Absolutely. My biographical influences and explorations of identity formation are vital to understanding my work. My sixteen-year-old mother struggled to raise me after my biological father abandoned me at birth, and the man who raised me committed suicide when I was thirteen. Growing up without a lot of money and without a male role model to look to for guidance, I became enthusiastic about commodities and popular culture, especially male cultural figures that I emulated, desiring the lifestyle and products that form of celebrity identities. I began self-medicating to disconnect from my feelings, which eventually led me to sell drugs in pursuit of material worth to compensate for my low self-worth. These circumstances led to my first possession-with-intent charge in November of 2002, resulting in a two-and-a-half-year sentence, of which I served a year-and-a-half. Unfortunately, I never raised the issues of my early traumas during my rehabilitation and naively thought I could work through them on my own. Coming home to nothing at the age of twenty-one, with unresolved emotional issues, it was not long before I began drinking and selling drugs to cope with my economic and emotional situation. This led to my second possession-with-intent indictment on February 9, 2009 resulting in a seventy-month prison sentence. Ironically, left with only myself in prison, my life-long questions of worth and identity were finally answered. I am no longer a drug dealer; I am an artist, and my work provides me with real, not material, value.
Can you explain the title of the piece?
Apokaluptein is the Greek origin of Apocalypse. I found this translation in the Oxford Dictionary, which I read quite often to decipher Giorgio Agamben’s “The Kingdom and the Glory.” The full description in the Oxford is as follows:
apocalypse: n. an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale. 2.(the Apocalypse)the complete final destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation. (especially in the Vulgate Bible) the book of Revelation
-origin OE, via OFr. and eccles. L. from GK apokalupsis, from apokaluptein ‘uncover, reveal’
I really connected with this word because it is such a literal translation in its origin and contemporary reference. The origin speaks to the material choice of the prison sheet as the skin of the prison, literally used to cover and hide the body of the inmate. Produced by inmates in the UNICOR program, the sheets are to cover and hide our bodies. My project reverses the intended use by the prison and opens up the ability to have a conversation about the prison sheet as a material that serves to “uncover and reveal” the prison system through my manipulation of this material and its latent associations. Also, the contemporary translation speaks to the actual process of incarceration and its dehumanizing deterioration of one’s identity: a type of personal apocalypse for each individual, which is why I combined apokaluptein with my Federal Bureau of Prisons identification number.
And I think there is something about the process of the image transfer that destroys the original photograph’s depiction of represented reality, and inscribes it within the fabric or skin of the prison, a type of destruction and recreation within prison. An attempt to transfer reality into prison, and my metaphorical escape whenever I sent a piece home with the hope that it could be my voice on the outside in the event that anything bad ever happened and I never made it home.
What about the notion of tattoos in prison in relation to “tattooing” prison bedsheets?
There is a direct relation with tattooing that I was not concerned with at the time but in retrospect I see how my process of creation parallels that of others in prison who give and get tattoos. There is the idea of the prison sheet as skin that I previously mentioned, and the inscription or confinement of photographs that represent outside reality, and the practice of actual tattoos on the skin of the individual in prison that usually commemorate something from one’s previous life outside the walls. Also, there is the whole notion of my practice and process being a defense against the dehumanizing and objectifying designs of the prison system. In a similar yet different way, tattoos are also defense mechanisms for incarcerated individuals. Most people in prison join gangs out of fear: you are surrounded by thousands of other people, some of them violent, already covered in tattoos. A way to connect with the people in that environment is to get tattooed yourself and present yourself as if you too are somewhat dangerous and violent. The tattoos are mostly a prison-constructed identity that serves to create a common bond with everyone else in your environment and simultaneously ward off potential threats. Nevertheless, they are usually gotten out of fear, even if most, if not all, of the people in prison would never admit that. It is very dangerous to admit fear in this environment; it makes you vulnerable.
What time did you get to work on these? At night, afternoon, after hours?
The time I put into them was intense. I made each piece in the art studio that fellow inmates built for me from scratch. One image transfer would take 30 minutes, and each earth panel has at least eight image transfers and the hell panels have up to 40 image transfers. Blending the image transfers would take additional hours. On average, I would finish one panel a month, working twelve hours a day, every single day. I would begin working on them around 6 AM until lunch at 11:30, then back to the studio and work from 12:30 to 3:30, eat dinner, then back to the studio again from 5:30 to 8:30. If we went on lockdown or anything like that, I would work in my cell. I would roll my mattress up and work on the metal bed frame mounted to the wall. For instance, over a two-week lockdown after we all went on a food strike I worked in my cell all day every day, just so I would not miss any time to create.
There are three levels in the piece. Top, middle, and bottom, due to the way the bed sheets have been installed. They reference religious ideals, beliefs and constructs. Heaven; top, sky and images of naked, grey, perhaps immortalized women soaring/dancing and flying with faces of cultural and political icons from the newspaper, Earth: middle, horizon line, landscape, houses, giant dressed women from magazines or catalogues in color, small drawings of women with pink toned flesh not necessarily soaring upward but dancing in the sky. Hell: bottom, magazine spreads depicting women vis-a-vis graphic design layout, type, text, ads, with the same drawing of small women but now the grey shows a deeper and more graphic black than the top ones.
The panels are set up in a heaven, earth, hell triptych. The piece references medieval art and the Italian renaissance in its religious imagery but also in its depiction of a window onto the world. The figures were all traced from ballerinas in The New York Times art section. For me they represented the ideal body, or perfection in movement. However, this ideal is completely artificial to normal human movement and unsustainable for anyone to emulate. These artificial, idealized figures are represented in three different ways in heaven earth, and hell. The panels suggest a contemporary version of Dante’s trilogy where politicians, celebrities, and offenders serve as archangels, angels, and demons that establish ideals and artificial norms in our culture of celebrity worship, where impracticable role models are lionized in the media. All of them are negative depictions or stereotypes that are presented as role models in one way or another.
Why the female imagery and the specific homogenous choice of white women from these sources?
It just happens that our media only seems to depict white women. I used what material was available to me and the few minority women I used over the five years are really what were available. The imagery of men in advertisement is very thin. I think it really exposes the way our media still uses women as both objects of desire and commodities.
In the bottom/hell level there are a plethora of images, but they seem to source mostly ads. What was the impetus behind those choices?
The images in the hell panels are all capitalist advertisements and images of artists or exhibitions that are sponsored and co-opted by large financial institutions. It is really a comment on the corruptibility of the arts by capital. Once an artist is sponsored or exploited by these institutions the work becomes impotent to communicate effectively. It becomes institutionalized, normalized, and neutralized through its support by the very institutions that directly oppress the 99%. Most of the time these institutions and individuals do not support the artist while he is living and working, but only later in life or after the artist’s death.
Can you talk a bit about your piece at Eastern Penitentiary?
It is a really surreal thing to think about. Being sent to prison, making this entire piece in prison, teaching others inmates art in prison, then coming home and installing the piece in the first penitentiary and presenting/teaching civilians about my art and what it was like to be in prison, within a prison. An infinite reflection in being/existence.
Are you familiar with the Quaker notion of the prison? What are your thoughts about the Quakers’ idea of prison as a place for someone to spend time alone with God? I know that this is irresponsibly romantic but, due to the piece, you seem like you created a monastery of sorts within the walls and as “prayers” you sent these out as petitions.
Where Foucault turned Jeremy Bentham’s infamous plans for an omniscient prison, never built, into a metaphor for the oppressive gaze of late capitalism, I gave the metaphor flesh. In prison I translated Foucault’s Discipline and Punish into Apokaluptein:16389067.
This figure made of sheets is my conceptual and metaphysical transfiguration, the piece is a fragile bit of human time keeping. Through my art I escaped prison: I transcended my condition and transferred myself. I stepped back from the world into myself, into somewhere not so much a place as a non-place. My work explores the relationship between states of being, non-being and becoming. Apokaluptein:16389067 intentionally references the tradition of topographical reliquary, which links an object’s meaning to the sacred importance of its originating place. The prison sheet as a non-site corresponds to Hegel’s non-being and therefore effectively represents the anti-reliquary or the reliquary from Hell.