Imagine a grey, rectangular box pretends to be a ship. Instead of carrying bananas or crude oil, this vessel holds its prisoners in confinement. A prison, by definition, resists scrutiny. It is a state institution designed to house those deemed to be marginal and a threat to public order. MikeRickett’s ‘The Vessel’
, recently shown at Works|Projects
in Bristol, asks us to consider how the state takes drastic measures to house prisoners. But such pragmatic functionality is transformed as this giant object slips away under the cover of dark to new locations and activities.
Lured by a view of a floating structure across Portland Harbour and berthed outside a permanent prison on Portland Bill, HMP The Verne, Ricketts attempts to photograph this ship that resolutely abdicates any aesthetic qualities in favour of pure function. Seen from the exterior, it has the appearance of a warehouse, which is its purpose – the storage of 450 prisoners. He tries to get close enough to photograph the ship from the cliffs above, but anticipating restrictions about photographing the structure, Ricketts takes advantage of a legal helpline to seek guidance. Such concern for legalities becomes moot when it is towed away in the middle of the night bound for Nigeria to house oil workers.
The ship was constructed in 1979 as a pontoon ‘flotel’ in Stockholm and later used as accommodation in the Falklands following the war. Identified in its life by insidiously nondescript names such as ‘Jascon 27’ and ‘Bibi Resolution’, this vessel embodies the endless, clerical shuffling of international, corporate assets. Ranging from factory worker accommodation in Germany to a New York drug rehabilitation centre obscuring river views, the ship is a commodity untethered to place, function or owner. The only constant is a residential barge-master with a passion for loudly playing show tunes from ‘Phantom of the Opera’.
Ricketts unravels this saga of displacement and reassignment, with an arch doggedness, illustrating the bureaucratic processes of global commodity exchange. But at the end of his investigations one mystery remains: where is the painting commissioned to commemorate of its time as a place of detention? This picture is cited in a letter written by the prison governor congratulating the artist for producing ‘a remarkable work and so correct in all its points’.
Collating together a film, news clips and the re-discovered painting, ‘The Vessel’ is a project that leads us through a painstaking and funny journey to pin down something that is wholly elusive. A hollow container has a function superimposed and then withdrawn. A ship normally subject to weather, tides and location, temporarily squats by the English coast. Ricketts asks us to consider its transitional presence and status. All that remains of its service to Her Majesty’s law and order is a banal painting that attempts to suggest some dignity in a structure possessing all the elegance of an electricity sub- station. Titled ‘HM Prison, The Weare 1997-2005’, the rediscovered painting is now on loan to the exhibition and illustrates the irony of trying to lend gravitas to something that is a giant, floating shed. Instead of nautical romance, we’re left looking at a crude rendition of grey geometry sitting awkwardly in Weymouth harbour, embodying pretence, subterfuge and evasion.
Mike Rickett’s project deftly exposes the dry imperatives shaping this ship’s existence. All that remains of HMP The Weare’s contribution to our national life is an insipid ‘painting’, a limp description in oil, which exposes the wide gap between decor and its more utilitarian history. ‘The Vessel’ takes us on a hunt for clues, pulling together evidence to suggest ways in which this peculiar floating structure might be understood. The ship, if we can call it that, begins to embody the secrecy of government and financial bureaucracies that take possession of it. Constantly reinvented, ‘The Vessel’ is uncannily pliable, sailing out of sight from one definition to another.