Part 5 – Parallel Project – ‘Her Bed’ – Installation

Her Bed – Messy bed
Tracey Emin – ‘My Bed’
Tracey Emin ‘My Bed’ Detail

Over the past few months I have been able to go into the now closed Holloway Prison with permission and a screwdriver to remove some items for this installation ‘Her Bed’. This installation is directly inspired by and a homage to Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ and seeks to have the viewer debate the circumstance and mental wellbeing of an incarcerated woman, many of whom have not committed violent offences, are sentenced to short sentences, have to contend with the separation from their family or children and the fallout from a custodial sentence, but are often victims themselves.

It is the stories that lie behind each object in Tracey Emin’s installation, the time that the installation depicts and the headspace and life story that the composition depicts.

Most of the preparation for this work was in the attainment of all the objects that I would need to create an authentic installation. Getting into the prison required much organisation and many trips. The items left in the prison are just the skeletons of the life lived there, and is generally very securely attached to the building with a wide variety of fittings and screw heads to contend with. Everything was designed and fitted not to be removed!

Prison bed sketchbook

All the free-standing furniture such as cabinets had been removed, so I had to improvise and used a small shelved locker that was attached to the wall next to some beds. The items on the pinboard are all authentic and were borrowed from someone who had spent time in the prison. The bedding and items on and in the cabinet are donated from the stores of a men’s prison first-night pack. Some of the cutlery and soap are from HMP Holloway and were found during the various trips to acquire the objects

Once I had all my objects, I was given permission by Peabody to have access to the site with one assistant for 3 days to set-up and photograph the installation. There is no power on-site so I had requested that I set up in the former Resettlement area that housed a large open room that was once used as a waiting area for the women, then latterly, by the London School of Fashion as a commercially based workshop that employed the women inmates. The space was blessed with sky-lights so there was enough light in daylight hours to work in, was big enough to mark out the space of the cells, and had been painted floors and walls in a light grey for some meanwhile filming use since the prison closed. Perfect for this project!

Floor Layout cell D0-24
Floor Layout cell D4-36

The first task was to measure some rooms. There are a number of different sized rooms in the prison, some of the single rooms had bunk beds in them to house two women. I measured a room on D0 landing. This was an enhanced worker landing, however, did have safe cells with fitted furniture more common with the healthcare and segregation units. These two cells are similar in size, The ground floor one had a bay window whereas the cell on D4 was located in the old Mother and Baby unit, was a more square shape, but had access to a creche and roof garden. I taped the two different cells out on the floor and tried to line the edges up with any ducting or ceiling furniture so that I could hang the items that I wished to suspend with fishing wire. The fishing wire was doubled up to support the weight of the objects and I used tape to mark the points from which the objects would be hung. I screwed some picture hooks on the back, which made the items really easy to move and re-hang. I indicated on my floor plan where the windows, doors, and toilet facilities were in each room.

I felt that the domed mirror was an important aspect of the installation. A full, half or Quater dome was placed on the ceiling just inside a cell or on the far wall so that an officer could view the entire inside of a cell from the viewing hatch in the door.

The reflection of the installation is interesting, not just in the composition, but as thought-provoking medium into past reflections, the distance that society puts between itself and the prison world.

I have set-up an photographed 3 versions of ‘Her Bed’.

Her Bed – Prison Bed

Her Bed – Messy Bed

The prison regime would require the women to keep their rooms tidy. They would have had full-length lockers and 3/4 height ‘wardrobes to keep clothing and personal items in. Women would have jobs within the prison and many jobs had identifying fleeces that the women could wear denoting their roles. Although the women would be issued with one of each item, it was common for women to accumulate multiples of some items. Smoking was permitted in the prison until 2015 when women were able to buy disposable vapes instead. Most cells had a small grey safe located beneath the metal beds for medication and other valuable items such as tobacco that were sough-after or tradeable. Each woman would be issued with a grey tracksuit. Apparently, the prison was either very cold at times or baking hot when all the radiators were on! These tracksuits did not have to be worn, women could wear their own clothes, but they were comfortable for the women and warm.

Her Bed – Tidy
Her Bed – Gym Orderly
Her Bed – Messy

This initial purpose was to demonstrate the space that an inmate would have to live in, the color of the accessories that the women would be familiar with and the items that women might receive under their doors in the way of post, notifications and application forms from the communal areas that could be completed when women were locked in.

Prisoner notice board

Each bed had a pinboard in or near it for the women to either pin or stick with toothpaste any personal items. The Applications and notices, the weekly Canteen Sheet, weekly letter made into a Christmas Card, the Chaplaincy issue calendar, some handmade collages and family correspondence, a painting and some photocopied drawings. The pinboards were the only space that women were allowed to display personal items in their rooms.

Her Bed – Self Harm

Her Bed – Self Harm

This set-up is aimed at telling a story. Based on the high percentage of women who enter the prison system with mental health problems or who are victims themselves or who suffer from the trauma of being separated from their children.

The blood is dripped from my finger onto a clear perspex sheet so that it could be moved. The reaction to this set-up that I have had so far has mostly been ‘Uurghh’ and people turn away from the image as it is uncomfortable. Not exactly the reflective response I was intending, but a strong response all the same!

Her Bed – Self Harm – View from door

Her Bed – Self Harm detail images

Her Bed – Self Harm – Detail
Her Bed – Self Harm – envelope
Her Bed – Self Harm – with reflection

Mother and Baby

Her Bed – Mother and Baby

The Mother and Baby Unit was closed in 2013 and latterly used as a ROTL (Release on Temporary Licence) landing housing women that would leave the prison on day release for work and maintaining family ties. There was still some items left in the creche and I am assured that this octopus is from the D4 landing Creche.

Her Bed – Mother and Baby – with Graffiti Boards

In Project 1 in this part 5 which explores the use of text, I have used some of the panels I produced for this exercise and incorporated them into this installation, hanging them in, appropriate for this installation, if not 100% accurate locations. This area of the space that I was working in had less natural light, so appears more gloomy, which I also wished to express in some way.

Her Bed – Mother and Baby – Octopus
Her Bed – Mother and Baby – Bed
Her Bed – Mother and Baby – Wide view

The installation is designed to be able to be installed at other future locations, and these images can be used as narrative for discussion, for as yet undetermined purposes and for written work such as reports etc.

Additional images

I also wanted to record some of the set-up and different lighting conditions that were available to me during the time I had. I had to wait until dusk to be able to form shadows, and had a really short amount of time in which to shoot before it was too dark to operate effectively.

Apart from the overhead natural light, I had two of my own lights with stands and two floor lights that I borrowed from the security, these however had a much more yellow light, but were invaluable during periods of dusk.

This image highlights the soap, toothbrush and breakfast pack with milk cartons. The plastic plates and cutlery are all prison issue.

I had to purchase a piece of foam for the matress and pillows, and am reliably informed that the sheets had to be tied in this way to prevent them slipping off. The mattresses were covered in a protective vinyl cover that the women would routinely remove as they made moving when sleeping noisy and were less comfortable than the foam insides.

This is the first time I have created an installation of this sort. It required a lot of time, patience and planning to accumulate and work out how to install efficiently. I am pleased that the installation went very smoothly and I managed to get a few hundred photographs from the 3 day session. I have had someone kindly record a few videos of the installation, one with artists commentary.. I also took a few panorama images for posterity. The distortion is interesting visually and has some parallel with the mirror reflections.

Her Bed – Panorama
Her Bed – Mother and Baby – Panorama

My hope is that this is just the beginning for this installation project. That it may have future opportunities to be displayed in alternate more public locations. In the meantime, it will be safely kept in storage.

Niki Gibbs

28th November 2021

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