“Angola Prison, 1980,” by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick.
For several weeks in February and March, the Whitney Museum’s fifth-floor gallery has been drenched in the slamming of gates, the rattling of keys and the bellowing of prisoners and guards. The artist Andrea Fraser recorded the sounds at Sing Sing, the infamous prison 34 miles up the Hudson River, then fed them into a gallery that’s roughly the same size as the prison’s A Block.
“Down the River,” her commanding work, alludes to the practice of separating slaves — and prisoners to this day — from their families and sentencing them to backbreaking labor on the South’s cotton plantations. It is a show that prods viewers to consider “the institutional and symbolic polarization that increasingly defines American society,” Ms. Fraser said.
Artists around the country are grappling with America’s incarceration system, as a subject and a social force. Like Ms. Fraser, Cameron Rowland’s show at Artists Space engaged a privileged art world with the economic mechanisms behind mass incarceration, focusing on how our society benefits from prisoners’ labor.
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