The Ikon gallery is one of my favourite spots in the whole of Birmingham. Nestled away in Brindley place, just the other side of the town hall and over the canal, the contemporary art gallery has regularly rotating exhibits throughout the year. Not only is it set in the picturesque part of Birmingham, the Ikon is completely free, making it an ideal spot for both visitors and brummy natives to frequent.

I have a history of experimenting with pressed flowers and crushed petals within my own art and poetry, and so when I heard about the Edmund Clarke exhibit that was on I’ll admit my initial pull was one that was on quite aesthetically shallow grounds. I won’t be ashamed to admit that because I think a lot of what art is initially, is a pleasing reaction of the eye. And this exhibit did not let me down on that front one bit.

Edmund Clarke is Ikon’s artist in residence at Europe’s only therapeutic prison in Buckinghamshire. His work is shaped by his immersion in prison life and routine, namely that of censorship and regulation. This exploration of prisoners’ representation in society, particularly their loss of identity and indeed humanity, was represented through a culmination of photography, video and installation. 


Like I say, I knew from bits I’d seen online that this was a floral-based exhibit, and so was excited to be greeted by a huge lightbox outline in the center of the room, covered in hundreds of picked and pressed flowers. I was struck by the delicate fragility of the colours, and the contrast dawned on me between the vulnerability that these flowers represented, and the darker suggestion of the prison grounds in which they were grown. I learned then that the lightbox square was the size of a prison cell the inmates inhabited, and suddenly the room felt claustrophobic and uncomfortable. The structure forced its visitors to imagine themselves existing in that cell that they had unwittingly wondered into, bridging that gap between “Them” and “Us” between the visitor and the prisoner and reminding us that we are all human.


The room behind this was dimly lit by four screens placed to show footage of a camera panning around prison grounds. Certain parts were censored by pixelated squares obscuring areas such as the exit doors, so that the only views recognizable was the repetitive route through the corridors and circuit around the recreation area within the prison walls. A television in an adjacent room shows footage of intimate moments of offenders’ therapy sessions, revealing a fragile and sensitive side to these humans that are so often cast aside by society once the tag of ‘convict’ is associated with them.

In the back room, various pin-hole camera photographs of men’s faces were projected onto cellmate’s bedsheets along side images of the pressed flowers. The faces were distorted and blurred so as not to be recognizable, and in monochrome and high contrast compared to the gentle images of the flowers. The sheer size of the sheets encouraged visitors to maneuvre about the room so all images could be seen. In the same way that the flower “cell” from earlier invited you into the world of the prison, this affinity to actual cell bedsheets and therefore the prisoners themselves encourages visitors to remember the humanity of these individuals who became faceless and nothing more than numbers in a system. This exhibition was accompanied by a publication of poetry written by the prisoners as arranged by the Koestler trust, a charity that organizes and exhibits artwork made by offenders, detainees and secure patients. This charity inspires offenders to take part in the arts, work for achievement and transform their lives. An anonymous offending exhibitor is quoted as saying “In an environment which alternates between clinical brightness and a dreadful darkness, Koestler brings permission for colour, texture and light. Every prisoner should be given a brush and told to make a mark – perhaps then less would return.”


This book of poetry ties in with the Ikon’s visual exhibit by encouraging us all to remember that these prisoners are humans, deserving of humane treatment and kindness. Each poem is signed by the poet’s first name only, and the poems range from upliftingly optimistic details of nature and hope, to the somber descriptions of appalling prison conditions, suicide, and heartbreak. 

Buy the book and learn more about the Koestler charity scheme here https://www.koestlertrust.org.uk/shop/books/koestler-voices-new-poetry-from-prisons-vol-1/

Both the exhibit and the poetry book beg we afford a degree of kindness, humanity and decency in a world where we are all to easy to cast aside members of society. Edmund Clarke’s work emplores that we remember to deserve one another dignity, humanity and above all reminds us that humans are complex beings, with the ability to be gentle and insightful no matter who we may be.



jessica lena