Censored - “Site Unseen: Incarceration”

Sheila Pinkel recently had a large photo mural of hers titled Site Unseen: Incarceration, censored - which gives chilling new meaning to the work’s name. I first met Ms Pinkel in 1984, when I curated a show in Venice, California, called the Pre-World War 3 Art Exhibit. She had submitted some extraordinary montage works that combined xeroxed photos with text in denunciation of nuclear war. Since those early days the unassuming and soft-spoken artist/photographer has remained committed to socially conscious art, using an assortment of atypical techniques to address injustice everywhere. Especially noteworthy has been her utilization of Xeroradiography (a method of recording X-ray images on specially coated paper), to create artworks that explore thorny issues. During the 1990’s, Pinkel devoted her work to an exploration of Cambodia, both its war torn past and its present-day place in a globalized economy. Now an Associate Professor of Art at Pomona College, where she teaches photography, photo history and media studies, Pinkel is still hard at work creating artworks that unmask contemporary realities, with her photo mural Site Unseen: Incarceration, being one of her most recent efforts. Rather than try to relate the story of its censorship myself, I’ll let Sheila Pinkel describe the fiasco in her own words from a letter she sent to me;

“While this isn’t the first time my work has been censored, because I was able to observe the process in detail, it is perhaps the most painful time. I installed a 9′ x 12′ modular mural entitled Site Unseen: Incarceration at T.H. Pendergast California Parole Museum in Diamond Bar, California on July 15th, 2005. It was to have been included in an exhibition commemorating 100 years of parole in the State of California. The official museum space is a small room and so to accommodate my mural Paul Toma, Museum Director and parole officer, requested and was granted wall space in the Parole Office classroom across the hall from the museum. It was Toma, who invited my participation in this exhibition after seeing the work in an exhibition at California Polytechnic University Pomona in the fall of 2004.

Detail from Pinkel's censored photographic mural
However, the following Monday afternoon I received a phone call from Patrick Merrill, curator of this exhibition, telling me that the chief Administrator of the Parole Office had called to tell him that my mural is too disturbing and we needed to take it down immediately. Patrick asked the Administrator to identify what was so disturbing. Finally he said that the images of the whipped black slave and billboard reflecting racism towards Japanese in the United States prior to and during WWII were too disturbing. In fact, I agreed with the Administrator that these images are disturbing. They are to me as well. The curator persuaded him to at least allow the mural to stay up during the opening of the exhibition. He agreed. The opening event held on Thursday, July 21st, was in the classroom where the mural was placed. After the brief ceremony, a reporter asked the Administrator if the mural was going to be censored. However, he refused to answer and walked away. I was told that he had not made a decision about the mural but that I would be informed the following day about whether it was to be removed. And, indeed, by mid-day Friday, July 22nd, I did get the call from the Director of the Museum that the Parole Office Administrator wanted the mural removed as soon as possible. So, I went to the Parole Office on Monday, July 25th, at 8:00 a.m. and removed it.

In retrospect I realize that my experience here was similar to the prior times that my artwork has been censored. When I place my socio-political artwork in museums or galleries, it is never censored. However, when I have placed my work in the public domain it has been censored. Had the work been exhibited in the California Parole Museum itself this censorship would not have occurred. This event has raised many questions for me: Is visual work exhibited outside an art space more confrontational than the same work contained inside the confines of an art space and if so, why? Why would this work be so disturbing to people who work for the Parole Office and who are, in theory, concerned with making conditions better for prisoners? Am I wrong in this assumption? Is the subject of the growth of incarceration in the United States sufficiently disturbing to merit censorship? And, why is seeing the reality of history so offensive to this Administrator? All I did was to reflect this well-documented and widely acknowledged history.I treasure moments in which I trip, unwittingly, over a nerve in the culture because it is at those moments that I feel that something usually not visible is revealed. I have always felt that good artwork is not an end but a catalyst for thought and dialogue. In this case I came away wishing that the work could have remained up to generate discussion and that its censorship cut short the potential for growth and understanding. As a result of this censorship, we are individually and collectively diminished and the meaning of democracy is weakened.”

[ Immediately after posting the above, I noticed that the July 28th, 2005 edition of the Los Angeles Times, also made mention of the censorship of Ms Pinkel’s mural ]

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