Watching the subjects of Fiona Tan’s video installation–prison inmates and guards–I realized that I had to forget received notions of guilt and punishment. All those thoughts about remorse, innocence, and discipline were preventing me from perceiving Tan’s restrained project (among her influences are documentary photographers August Sander and Danny Lyon) for what it is: portraits of very ordinary people whose crimes or jobs have left no visible mark on them. The artist filmed 300 prisoners and guards in Illinois and California, but the images (transferred to video) are basically still because her subjects barely move; their blinking and breathing and the ambient noise, however, make them all the more human. For each 45-second segment Tan used the so-called American shot–the body from the knees up–popular in Hollywood films, evoking a century of pop-culture images of cops and robbers. The configuration–the viewer sits at the center of a circle of six video screens, each showing a different person–echoes the plan for the Panopticon, a prison designed by 19th-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. A model of liberalism in its day, it was intended to replace corporal punishment with isolation and surveillance. Tan’s sly achievement is to imply that the spectator is the one who may need correction: placing the viewer where Bentham’s administrator would have been calls attention to our lack of surveillance of a system that’s incarcerated over two million people in this country. Tue 10-8, Wed-Sun 10-5, through 1/23. $10 suggested admission; $6 students, seniors; kids 12 and under free. Tue 5-8 PM free. Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-280-2660.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Fiona Tan and Frith Street Gallery London.