Since 2006, Sheena Hoszko has created minimalist-inspired sculptural installations that address issues of power and social justice, particularly within the prison system. Informed by her own family’s experience with the subject and her involvement with anti-prison organization, Hoszko produces conceptual works that seem abstract, austere and rational at first, but are in fact highly sensitive. While other mediums like documentary photography can break through the invisibility of the prison environment—and our indifference to it—by creating empathetic portraits of people “on the inside,” Hoszko chooses a different approach. Her works focus less on the individuals than on the system itself, giving it visual form to help us reflect on the values that underlie our choices in how we treat inmates, and the structures that lead to their criminalization.
Hoszko moves away from figurative representation to focus on the viewer’s own physical experience with her work. While space is an essential dimension for any sculptor—and central to Hoszko’s artistic research—it is howshe uses it that makes her approach to the political issues she addresses so unique. For example, when faced with a 1:1 scale reproduction of a single unit of space devoted to the treatment of mental health in prisons (2017), or a mass of security fencing equal to the perimeter of the Central East Correctional Centre (2016), viewers became physically aware of the specific spatial contexts of inmates. For these projects, Hoszko based her calculations on documents received through an Access to Information Request, and on the number of steps required to walk around a correctional facility. The body therefore acts as a unit of measurement, both in its encounter of the work and in its realization. Her decision to work non-figuratively confirms the artist’s ethical stance: avoid instrumentalizing the voice or image of inmates who don’t have the opportunity to assert themselves or respond, since they alone can truly express what it’s like to be “inside.”
35+ Prisons in Québec is the result of a lengthy process that led Hoszko to the exterior limits of every correctional facility in the province, including the Joliette Institution for Women located three kilometers from the MAJ. At each location, the artist took an imprint of ground at the threshold where freedom is suspended, and later etched these markings onto copper plates. By distributing these plates throughout the museum, Hoszko focuses on the prison network’s geography and the history of its implementation, which often involved the clergy. In an effort to imagine alternatives to incarceration as a solution to social, economic and political problems, and to advocate for the abolishment of a system where Black and Indigenous people are over-represented, Hoszko chose not to fix the emulsion on her copper plates, thus transforming the traces of these sites into a reality that will eventually disappear.
The artist’s ultimate hope is that her work will act as a catalyst, inciting viewers to question themselves and become more informed by reading the explanatory zine and other documents made available to them here. To paraphrase the criminologist Sandra Lehalle, Hoszko urges us to reflect both on the purpose of prisons, and on how prisons should be. Quite astonishingly, the rights of detainees have only been legally recognized since 1992, following the reform of Canada’s sentencing and parole legislation aiming to protect inmates from abuse of power and arbitrary management. This belated response, which amounts to a minimal acknowledgement of the humanity of prisoners, demonstrates how prison conditions had long been a blind spot in Canada. For her part, Hoszko is skeptical this reform has brought about any real change, and insists that the system, at its core, remains implacable.
Work shown in the banner:
© Sheena Hoszko, 35+ Prisons in Québec, 2017.
Photo credit: Paul Litherland
Interview with Sheena Hoszko
Sheena Hoszko is a sculptor, anti-prison organizer, and settler living and working in Tio’tia:ke (Montréal), in Kanien’kehá:ka territory. Her art practice examines the power dynamics of geographic, architectural, and psychological sites, and is informed by her family’s experiences with incarceration, the military, and mental illness. Selected recent / upcoming exhibitions include Centre Clark and La Centrale (Montreal), A Space (Toronto), The New Gallery (Calgary), Blackwood Gallery (Mississauga), Musée d’art de Joliette, and La Ferme du Buisson (Noisiel). Hoszko recently presented at the Queens Museum (NYC) as part of Open Engagement. Her writing has appeared in M.I.C.E magazine and within Free Inside: The Life and Work of Peter Collins, published by Ad Astra Comixs.