Created as a site-specific work for the exhibition Prison Sentences: The Prison as Site, The Prison as Subject at Philadelphia’s now-abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary (organized by independent curators Julie Courtney and Todd Gilens), 5 to 10 is Willie Cole’s poignant examination of the futility and loss that accompanies imprisonment. The installation gains its power from the simplicity of the materials—used and broken playground equipment—which are placed in suggestive arrangements: a swing set leans against the prison wall, the row of swings pressed to the hard stone as if in a firing line; a series of basketball nets are hung 30 feet high on the prison’s outer wall, across from the prison’s former Death Row and far too high to ever be used for play; a sandbox is littered with pairs of children’s sneakers, turned sole-side up.
Cole’s initial idea for the project came when he saw a newspaper article chronicling the story of a child’s murderous act. The use of basketball nets and sneakers suggests a cultural critique of the often hopeless but common dream among America’s youth— especially poor African American youth—to be “discovered” as the next star athlete. By conflating relics of childhood with the idea of imprisonment, Cole offers commentary on lost innocence and hopelessness that plague more than just the inmates confined to a prison’s walls.