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Fiona Tan at the New Museum of Contemporary Art

Power, and specifically the power inherent in the gaze, is a palpable theme in Indonesian-born Fiona Tan's installation Correction (2004). The first in a series of works by emerging artists commissioned jointly by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, Correction is made up of 300 video clips of inmates and guards at four prisons in Illinois and California. The videos are projected in regular succession onto the fronts and backs of six large screens (around 5 by 3 1/2 feet), which can be viewed from both sides. Suspended from the ceiling and surrounding a circle of benches, the screens appear at first glance to be large-scale color stills; Tan videotaped each of her subjects for between 20 and 50 seconds, during which time, standing, they remained as motionless as possible.

As viewers look at the prisoners and guards, who appear to be staring straight back, small movements become apparent: blinking, breathing, a slight nervous rocking back and forth. Discomfort, shyness and self-consciousness all make themselves felt, and the images become a metaphor for aspects of prison itself: the constraints on movement, a sense of suffocation, the constant observation. Nor can one escape the incessant background noise--a steady hum of voices, doors slamming, machinery.

The circular arrangement of the installation is a reference to the Panopticon, a theoretical jail devised by the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in which prisoners are under constant surveillance. In its cataloguing of a population, Tan's project also references August Sander's "People of the Twentieth Century," in which he attempted to document every "type" in German society. In addition, Tan suggests the flawed history of anthropological photography, in which researchers framed indigenous "others"--in Tan's case, it would be the American criminal underclass--through the ostensibly objective, scientific tool of the camera.

Despite the broad historical and theoretical underpinnings of Correction, its execution is simple and extremely effective. Tan got the idea for her installation--whose title can be read as both a label for the penal system and a cry for change--after reading an article about the number of inmates in American prisons. This now exceeds 2.2 million, constituting a higher percentage of the overall population than in any other country in the world. By making her subjects as large as life in returning the viewer's gaze, Tan has magnified the most basic evidence of their humanity, demanding that it be recognized.

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