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March 11, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Therese Pfeifer spent a month in a Swiss prison, but her only crime is a passion for visual art.
Last autumn, Pfeifer, an adjunct professor at the Stephens College School of Design and Fashion, transformed a cell of an abandoned prison to depict how time passes in confinement. The prison, an extension of an 800-year-old medieval castle, overlooks the ancient town Lake of Thun and the Swiss Alps. “This prison was in a sort of political limbo,” Pfeifer says. “There were suggestions to tear it down while others felt it should be preserved and turned into a public space.”
The Thun Commission for Cultural Affairs selected Pfeifer’s proposal for the prison. Her exhibit brought several thousand people through the medieval prison’s gates between Oct. 24 and Nov. 8. The installment ultimately saved the building from being demolished and made it into a luxury apartment complex.
In the weeks before the exhibit opened, Pfeifer worked alone in the empty prison with only her art. “It was sometimes quite freaky up there with only the ghosts of the prisoners, the markings of their graffiti or the odor of the toilets that were installed in each cell,” she says.
Most of the time there was only absolute, eerie stillness looming in the castle’s halls. “Only rarely would I hear the wind blowing, loose doors banging open and shut,” she says, “or the laughter and screams from visitors to the castle.”
She used the theme “Die Zerfaltete Zeit” (or “time folded”). With folded paper, she converted one prison cell to reflect distortion of time spent in confinement. “I have always been interested in the concept of imprisonment but not always in such an overt way,” she says.
Before locking herself away in the castle, Pfeifer dedicated the summer to conceptualizing the exhibit. “I noticed when I visited that the time in the prison feels funny,” she says. “You can tell the time is folded together.”