Peter Hoffmeister

Ball and Chain (Per Capita)
2013
Black polyester felt
Dimensions variable

The Morris-Jumel Mansion, Manhattan’s oldest residence, has a complex history.
British Colonel Roger Morris, a loyalist, built the Mansion in 1765 as a summer home. It sat on an estate that extended from present-day 135th Street to 181st Street, from the Hudson River to the Harlem River, on one of the highest natural plateaus in Manhattan. General George Washington used the house as his headquarters from September to October 1776, during the Battle of Harlem Heights. After the Revolutionary War, the Mansion continued to host America’s Founding Fathers, including: Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and George Washington, who all visited the estate in 1791. In 1833, the Mansion briefly became the home of infamous former Vice President, Aaron Burr, during his short, unhappy marriage to Eliza Jumel, a widow and one of the wealthiest women in Manhattan.

For this exhibition, I viewed the Mansion as an artifact, and a silent witness to the founding of the United States. Drawing on the history of the Mansion, the personal experiences of its inhabitants, American history, and current events, I created site-specific installations for the Mansion’s period rooms. These works utilize historical texts, maps, architecture, and found imagery, creating an experience that traces the histories of social phenomena and ideologies into the present.

For this installation, I arranged silhouettes of each of the fifty United States across the parlor floor. Made of black felt, the states become part of the room’s carpeting. The size of each state reflects its current per capita prison incarceration rate—therefore, Louisiana is the largest state, while Maine is the smallest. As a whole, the United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. Louisiana's per capita rate of incarceration is three times higher than Iran's.

The front parlor’s ornate furniture, carpeting and wallpaper speak to the wealth of New York’s 19th century merchants. However, comfort and elegance came at a price. The Atlantic trade economy that made such wealth possible was dependent on the Atlantic slave economy, and on the unpaid labor of millions. Today, there remains a direct correlation between states that formerly had high slave populations, and those that now have high per capita incarceration rates.
MJM: Unpacked