News & Politics

Turning the Death Penalty to Art

"The Waiting Room," an powerful new art installation by reknown artist Richard Kamler, is currently touring through the American south and east. The exhibit recreates a waiting room that a death row inmate must pass through before execution, replete with prisoner's last meals etched in bronze and their last words hanging from drapes. Kamler hopes that his art will inspire people to take action against the barbarism and cruelty of the death penalty.
SAN FRANCISCO -- It was while artist Richard Kamler was waiting in San Quentin prison for the guards to release him that he was struck by the inspiration for his next piece. Kamler was sitting with the mother of his friend who is on death row, and she turned to him and said, "Waiting like this reminds me of being in a hospital waiting room 37 years ago before they checked me in to give birth to Guy."Here was "the arc of life" from birth to death. But life was not ending in natural death; the arc was being cut short with "murder at the hands of the state," says Kamler. And suddenly, remembers Kamler, he was overcome by the "incredible" feeling of waiting for death, a slowing down of the senses, "like that moment between when we inhale and exhale -- which we usually aren't conscious of -- when we're waiting for the next breath to happen.""I knew then I had to make a waiting room," says Kamler. And so every time he went to San Quentin after that day, he began to memorize the look and contents of the waiting room. "I measured and counted the tiles," he says, "the number and size of the concrete blocks, the warning signs on all the walls, what was in the vending machines -- everything."At The Gallery at the University of Texas in Arlington, Kamler has recreated San Quentin's waiting room as a multimedia, interactive art installation. The installation first opened in February at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Texas -- a town which also is home to the death chamber where an average of two prisoners are executed each week. "I had to start this in Texas," says Kamler bitterly, "the state-sanctioned murder capitol of the world." Kamler's bitterness is understandable. The United States is the only country in the developed world except Japan that executes prisoners -- and Texas has the highest rate of capital punishment in the Union. Two hundred and twelve prisoners have been killed in Texas since 1982; 225 since 1995, when George W. Bush became governor. Florida, where Gov. Bush's brother Jeb Bush is governor, is the second largest executioner of prisoners in the country. Dominating Kamler's piece is the sound of time running out. A giant video metronome is projected on a set of bars at its entrance; its ticking and the sound of the beating of a heart fill the space. The waiting room itself has been recreated by 13 hanging banners made of thin sheets of lead, which Kamler says symbolize toxicity. On these banners are stenciled the actual warning signs posted on the walls at San Quentin: "If you wear a bra containing any wire you will not clear the metal detector"; "No excessive kissing"; "Kissing only at the beginning and the end"; "No sleeveless tops or dresses." Another hanging piece in the installation is titled "Dead Women Waiting." It has photos of the 37 women on death row bordered in red, white and blue. Kamler calls it his "American Flag." Still another part of the installation features the "execution record" of Texas prisoner Clydell Coleman, who was recently put to death. The record includes the exact times Coleman was taken from his cell, strapped to the gurney, administered the lethal dose of poison and died.When a visitor enters the installation, to one side of the space is a cart where the museum-goer can pick up trays with a prisoner's last meal cast in lead. Kamler downloaded a list of prisoners' last meals from a ghoulish Internet Web site the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has maintained since 1982. (Most of the condemned ordered burgers or T-bones and French fries. A few ordered nothing.) On each tray is the executed prisoner's name and his last words before being executed. Visitors can take a meal and sit down in one of 60 waiting room plastic chairs bolted to the floor. A stack of video monitors run tapes Kamler has recorded with murderers and members of the victims' families, one of whom opposes the death penalty."I hope people wait there," Kamler says. "To me waiting is a pause, a kind of momentary clemency, a time to reconsider. When you witness an execution, you're assembled, then you wait, then the person is killed and you have to wait to be released from prison yourself." While Kamler's metronome keeps its regimented ticking in the gallery, every so often the recorded heart beat stops. "Some people grab their chests to see if their own hearts are still beating," Kamler reports.Kamler, 57, a native San Franciscan, has been making art about prisons and the death penalty since 1979 when a friend invited him to show slides of his work to prisoners at San Quentin. "It was the din that hit me -- people in your face shouting, the TV blaring, metal on metal, concrete on concrete. Everything is hard and boom, boom, boom. I was just stunned. Stunned and excited," says Kamler of his first visit to prison. He signed up to work with prisoners as an artist-in-residence, first at San Quentin, then in San Francisco city jails.Kamler also explains that as a young art apprentice in 1963, he had an epiphany while waiting to introduce himself to Austrian-American sculptor Frederick Kiesler. Kamler overheard Keisler say to a visitor, "Through art, we can change the laws of the world." Kamler has been trying to change the laws of imprisonment through his art ever since.In 1992, he set up gigantic speakers on a boat in the San Francisco Bay just off San Quentin and broadcast lions roaring while Robert Alton Harris was being executed. His purpose, he says, was to reconfigure the ritual of capital punishment into a spectator sport. In 1993, Kamler astonished San Francisco by installing 100 painted plywood buffalo he'd built with prisoners in the field facing the city jail in San Bruno. (The jail quartered its own herd of buffalo, which has been moved there from their former home in Golden Gate Park.) "Oh Give Me A Home Where the Buffalo Roam," as the piece was called, prompted Sheriff Michael Hennessey, one of Kamler's fans, to comment, "Richard saw the unmistakable irony: the buffalo being kept at the jail for their own protection alongside hundreds of prisoners supposedly being held for OUR protection."Kamler, with his Fu Manchu moustache, shaved head and uniform of watch cap, denim shirt and jeans, looks like an ex-con himself. But his work is more than protest art. In a 1997 piece on Kamler, Sculpture Magazine wrote, "Whether inside or outside the confines of the gallery/museum setting, this art explores the realm of protest as the content of fine art."Alchemy is a persistent metaphor in Kamler's work. His last piece, "The Table of Voices," installed at the ex-prison on Alcatraz Island, featured a table bisected by Plexiglas as in a prison waiting room. Viewers could sit on one side of the table, pick up a phone and listen to a murderer talking about his crime or -- on the opposite side of the glass -- to a family member of a murder victim. This provided a wrenching dose of prison-life reality, but Kamler's table was also beautiful: half lead -- the basest of metal, the stuff of bullets -- and half gold, the most precious of materials. In places on the table, lacey patches of gold filigree broke through the lead and caught the light, as if change had begun.In "The Waiting Room," Kamler says, "the alchemy is personal, not visual." For years he has been fascinated by the transformation of some murder victim's families from supporters of the death penalty to abolitionists. And so during the exhibitions of "Table of Voices" and "The Waiting Room," he has organized "community conversations" to which he invites paroled murderers, families of murder victims, pro- and anti-death penalty activists, police, prosecutors and politicians to talk with the public.At first Kamler had hoped that the dialogues "might help heal the families who've lost loved ones and everyone else dragged into murder's vortex." But after pro-death penalty activists tried to break up the Alcatraz show, Kamler isn't so optimistic about the prospect of healing. He hopes now just to temper the revenge he believes drives those who support capital punishment.In the end, Kamler's heart is with people like Texan Ron Carlson, whose sister was hacked to death by Karla Faye Tucker. After championing Tucker's trial sentence of death, Carlson befriended Tucker, campaigning against her execution. Kamler features Carlson on one of the videotapes in "The Waiting Room." "I just hope a few of the people who sit in 'The Waiting Room' might go through what it's like to wait for someone to be executed," Kamler says and, as a result, "find a way to change themselves.""The Waiting Room" will next travel to Houston, where it will open on May 25 at The Art League of Houston; then it will move on to Boston, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Long Island.Judith Coburn writes for many media, including, The Village Voice and the Los Angeles Times. Her first piece on was an interview with feminist historian Ruth Rosen.
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