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Virginia Stem Owens


Death and Texas

How a self-styled "Community Conversation" turned into an anti-conversation carried on by an anti-community.

The brochure from our local museum had described its new exhibit as an "installation," a term that, in our town, we usually apply to dishwashers, church officers, or, more recently, computer software. My husband declined the invitation to the opening, preferring to spend the afternoon laying bricks for a new patio, so I went alone the following Saturday to "The Waiting Room," a multimedia production by San Francisco artist Richard Kamler.

"What was it like?" my husband asked when I got home, looking up from a patch of sand he was leveling.

"Big," I said. "It took up two rooms."

In the main gallery, ten gray posters, each about 12 feet long, hung from the ceiling. They outlined an area, a placard explained, the size of the room where lawyers, spiritual advisors, and family members wait to visit inmates at California's San Quentin prison. Inside this space, two rows of empty chairs faced each other. Stenciled on the posters were instructions taken from the prison's handbook for visitors. One poster warned, for example, that visitors' hands must be visible at all times, another that bras containing wires would set off the metal detector.

Beyond this space, along one wall of the gallery, were mounted cafeteria trays, the kind with partitions. Most of the trays were empty, inscribed with the names of executed prisoners, the dates of their death, and the words, "Declined last meal." A few trays held renditions of some portion of a requested last meal—an ear of corn, a banana, a hamburger. Against the opposite wall, four video monitors played tape loops of interviews with relatives of condemned prisoners or their victims' families. Speakers concealed around the room emitted two other persistent sounds, a ticking clock and a beating heart. Every once in a while the heartbeat would speed up briefly, then stop.

"So what did you think of it?" my husband asked when I'd finished this description.

"Interesting," I shrugged, "but is it art?"

My offhand gibe concealed the bothersome ...

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