Wellcome Collection, London
15 September 2016 – 15 January 2017
“Bedlam” is such an intensely loaded word in the collective imagination, beyond the institution of Bethlem Royal Hospital, that it is hard to dispel images of Gothic Horror, cruelty, chaos and spectacle from the mind in relation to it. Having become “a mythical domain of the mad” to those outside its walls, embedded in centuries of folklore, song, visual art, film, literature and colloquial language, the expectations of visitors to this exhibition presents something of a curatorial challenge. Defying preconceptions, potent mythologies and ancient fears, this is a show where lived experience of mental illness, provides much needed insights, enabling individual voices to be seen, heard and felt. The history of asylums and treatment of mental illness worldwide holds a mirror up to society, reflecting our laws, dominant beliefs and projected fears. It isn’t naturally comfortable territory confronting that which we do not fully understand, within ourselves or in others. With history held at a safe distance, every generation believes itself to be more enlightened than the last, advancing scientific knowledge and technology, mapping the mind and penetrating deeper into its mysteries. In many ways Art and Science are united in their innate curiosity and desire to address the eternal why of what we are as human beings. What drew me to this Wellcome Collection exhibition was the possibility of what it does best as a culturally vibrant and engaging space; creating intersections between “Medicine, Art and Culture”, generating discussion, debate and essential unanswerable questions; in this case about the nature of mental illness and the concept of the asylum- an equally loaded word in contemporary society.
The tension between “protection and restraint”, the interests of the individual and the community they belong to (or are excluded from) are ever present, rooted in the subject and history of Bethlem Hospital. “Is mental illness – or madness – at root an illness of the body, a disease of the mind, or a sickness of the soul? Should those who suffer from it be secluded from society or integrated more fully into it?” Individually and collectively what does “well-being” look like in an actual or visionary sense? Co-curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz and Mike Jay Bedlam: the asylum and beyond explores these questions in the juxtaposition of over 150 objects, archival documents, photographs, films, sculpture, drawings and paintings, including historical works by William Hogarth, Adolf Wölfli, Vaslav Nijinsky, Richard Daddand work by contemporary artists; Eva Kot’átková, Shana Moulton, Javier Tellez, Jane Fradgley, Dora Garcia, David Beales and Erica Scourti. What is inspiring about this exhibition is the enduring power of creativity; enabling protest, understanding, reappraisal and the possibility of positive change. There is a resounding sense of shared humanity, resilience, and irrepressible spirit in the content of the show; in the ways that underlying questions about how we perceive, define and treat mental illness are illuminated by individual artists, writers, scientists, philosophers and participants. Reflections are consistently thrown back to the viewer; about our capacity to provide “care, refuge and sanctuary” in the age we now live in and within ourselves.
It is sobering to consider the many lives diminished or destroyed by successive ages of dominant beliefs and institutional policies; voices lost or wilfully silenced in the societal microcosm of the asylum. In this context the refrain of “our voices will rise” from Those shuffling feet from the past (3.25 min spoken word audio) by Frank Bangay is particularly poignant and powerful in its advocacy. Part of the Our Voices audio companion to the exhibition; a collaboration between Wellcome Collection, members of Core Arts and artist Jessica Marlowe, this direct communication of lived experience informs how the viewer interprets the objects on display. These interviews and testimonials introduce audiences to experiences that may be unfamiliar to them; of locked confinement, altered states of being, encounters with Psychiatry, the responses of loved ones and the effects of medication with honesty, dignity and humour. The immediacy of these voices add layers of interpretation, touching on objects in the exhibition across time and creating very direct connections with the viewer/ listener. As a result we are unable to relegate mental distress outside ourselves as “other” or to the past, because the voices, memories and associations they generate are within our own heads, experienced in real time. In this regard sound is a particularly potent trigger. As I listened to Steve McCann’s recollection; Introduction to Psychiatry 1974 (3:45mins) punctuated by a seemingly distant, echoing turntable rendition of “You with the stars in your eyes” the intense personal memory of the speaker fused with the universal experience of being taken back to significant, defining moments in the past through a song, smell or bodily sensation. Whether the lived experience is one shared by the listener or not, the mode of communication is directly relatable. When a memory is retold in such a spirit of openness, it is impossible not to respond in kind; establishing, in a small way, the kind of relationship between the speaker and listener that is also the foundation of talking therapy. With headphones on, the viewer is stilled and imaginatively present in the moment of recollection. The experience reminded me of Carl Rogers’ trinity of core conditions or attitudes that create a therapeutic environment: unconditional positive regard, congruence and empathy. Opportunities for this type of reflection within the exhibition are important in a addressing the negative branding, social stigma and isolation of mental illness which endures to this day, particularly in the context of a digital age so lacking in the cultivation of empathy. One of the enlarged self-help cards in Erica Scourti’s Empathy Deck sculptural installation accurately declares; “Empathy is the great connector of humanity. It’s either there or it isn’t and right now it isn’t.” Another dimension of this work is Scourti’s twitterbot that responds to tweets with unique digital cards; an automated form of divination, self-help and reflection. In our current post-asylum age of dualistic connectivity and alienation via the internet and social media, the “automation of empathy, friendship and care” “replacing (actual human contact and face to face) services” is an ongoing concern. In a hugely expanded “marketplace of treatment, medication” and “often inaccessible” “support options”, the exhibition “interrogates and reclaims the idea of the asylum as a place of sanctuary and care.”
One of the most affecting interrogative statements in the exhibition is a series of samplers in linen, cloth and thread made by Mary Frances Heaton (Unknown- 1878). Heaton was a music teacher admitted to Wakefield Asylum in 1837 with “epilepsy and delusions of an affair with Lord Seymour”, her employer. She remained imprisoned there for 36 years, her spirit sewn into every stitch she made; defiant marks on the fabric of a society where class and gender kept her in branded confinement. Her sewn and measured words of protest against her incarceration reach across time, expressing heart breaking loss of love and liberty; “In its blackest, most heart sickening, most confirmed, most important, most unequivocal and most extraordinary form- whereby the world is reduced to a blank and the brevity of human life is the only consolation the heart can ever know…” Reflecting on Heaton’s circumstances and pleas for assistance (which never came) including an appeal to her female sovereign, brings profound sadness, but her words -which could so easily have been destroyed remain and as long as they do she will never be silent. Perhaps surprisingly my overwhelming response to Heaton’s embroidery was hope, because standing in front of those framed, stitched documents of self-defence and preservation, there is the opportunity for the viewer to become a witness and advocate. Ironically the words of Thomas Tryon over two centuries earlier aptly describe Heaton’s world as “a great Bedlam where those that are more mad lock up those who are less”. Even today being “not of sound mind”, “insane”, “normal” or “abnormal” is a matter of perspective, social norms, medical diagnosis and the law, all of which are subject to human ethics and judgements in a particular time and place. The moral question of care remains a contentious issue, reflected in the architecture, language of treatment and successive models of reform. In Roger L’Strange’s proclamation of “Bethlehem’s (Bedlam Hospital’s) beauty, London’s Charity and the Cities glory” (Sept 16, 1676) there’s the inference of how civilized, moral or compassionate we actually are (or not), based upon the design of built environments and institutional care. Three distinct ages in Bedlam’s history; 18th Century “Madhouse”, 19th Century “Lunatic Asylum” and 20th Century “Mental Hospital”, extending into the 21st Century space “Beyond the Asylum”, are represented in the exhibition, charting prevailing attitudes. The 1810-1811 design of patient James Tilly Mathews which won a competition for the rebuilding of Bedlam included a kitchen garden and extensive notes linking the architecture and grounds to patient routines. This lived perspective, considering the conditions necessary for mental well-being and potential recovery, find their contemporary equivalent in The Vacuum Cleaner and Hannah Hull’s Madlove: A Designer Asylum. This “collaborative project with designers Benjamin Koslowski and James Christian, illustrator Rosie Cunningham, and over 300 people with lived experience of mental distress” revisits and reimagines “the asylum as ‘a safe place to go mad’“, asking the question; “ What does good mental health look, smell, taste, sound and feel like? The display includes a dialogue of process, scaled model of the ideal asylum and individual responses to what “the perfect day in an asylum might be”. Associatively the question is brought back to the viewer; What makes you feel good and gives you comfort? What is mental wellbeing for you? There were many relatable responses, like Wesman’s “visit the kitten room” –just the thought of such a place made me smile! Interestingly contact with Nature was a significant part of wellness in participant’s model asylums. The visitor activity of the pocket Asylum is also part of this collaborative work and another element to be taken away, perhaps to be rediscovered by chance or need in a wallet, handbag, desk or coat pocket. Making sense of our own perceptions and responses to mental illness when we encounter or experience it, in the relative safety of the exhibition space or in everyday life, involves significant shifts in perception, self-awareness and deeper levels of empathy.
Although Eva Kot’átková’s large installation, Asylum, (Mixed media, 2014) presents the viewer with a seemingly disarming “chaotic archive of inner visions” it becomes transformative as you move around it, bringing the viewer into contact with something more intimately human; the “psychological and physical effects of restraint”. Based on the artist’s research visits to the Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital in Prague, the subdued lighting creates a quiet, contemplative atmosphere encouraging focus on clusters of found objects, text, collage, assemblage and metal sculptures that emerge out of the large central table/ plinth. Like a black matt of unconscious, elevated ground, associations, memories and experiences expand and contract in the same way that states of mind alter perception. Metal bars are a recurrent trope in a largely monochrome three dimensional palette, animated by moments of warmth and muted colour. It’s a shadow world of the self, an exploration of the head expanding into the dimensions of a “house, palace” and “castle”, then shrinking into solitary confinement by shifting perceptive states. The body becomes visually fragmented; the head as a metal cage, mouth open like a doorway with steps leading up into it, heads bound in wire or defined by metal bars and the single mute line of a mouth. A collage bisects an abstracted cranial orb into positive and negative space, separated and simultaneously aligned. There are eyes with bars across, a heavily protective wall with eye holes and figurative assemblages with individual features cut away or eyes taped shut. The visual language and techniques are those of Dada and Surrealist Art; of protest, dreams and alternative realities, but instead of flights of imagination or desire, this archeologically excavated collective subconscious is bound in restraint. There’s poignancy in turning that associative visual grammar of freedom back in on itself, communicating a very anchored sense of how mental illness affects human beings. This work could be seen in terms of desolation- but it is also a window to lived experience, with scraps of text illuminating how the mind creates protective barriers and hiding places within.
Kot’átková repeatedly presents the body and mind as a vessel, symbolised by ancient clay jars, vases or a coiled labyrinth juxtaposed with the organic internal structures of shells grafted onto the human body; forms drawn from Nature’s design. There’s a sense of the base elements of human beings; in the presence of primitive masks, birds, bats, monkeys and in the physicality of abstracted bare metal backbone and simple figurative forms on the table, stripping back human beings to the nervous system and our attendant “fears, anxieties and phobias”. Unexpectedly it is not a bleak, fixed vision but an imaginatively fluid one which I found myself returning to several times. Moving around the perimeters of the room, drawn in by the relationships between different elements that surface, emerge and are then lost from one moment to the next mirrors life’s experience. As a result there’s a sense of fragility and vulnerability on display, together with the harsh realities of confinement and restraint within and without as part of the human condition. It’s a play of shadows that confronts what we all are; collections of memories, artefacts and visions.
Projected onto the wall in the left hand corner of this first room is a 1925 16mm film transferred to digital; the Procession of St Dymphna from the community of Geel in Belgium. This illumination returns the viewer to the origins of the asylum as a place of sanctity and refuge linked to religious belief, sacred duty and pastoral care. Since the 13th Century a tradition of care in the community, with those affected by mental illness boarding with the residents of the town and becoming integrated in everyday activities, has become a model but also a collective vocation. Within the legend of St Dymphna, patron saint of mental illness and emotional distress, there is suffering and trauma based on cruel circumstance; her Father’s madness and incestuous delusions which cause her to flee her home in Ireland, seeking safety and asylum in Flanders. Flight to this previously unknown territory has a parallel in “the mind coping with the unbearable” by reimagining the world within and without. Founded by Alderman Simon Fitzmary after his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1247, Bethlehem Hospital’s origins, like those of the community in Geel have a moral and spiritual root. Similarly the York Retreat, established in 1792 by William Tuke and the Society of Friends (Quakers), was founded on a belief in compassion for fellow human beings, providing a therapeutic framework for social integration, healing and well- being; not just for the individual but in a wider cultural and spiritual context. This vision of care and responsibility is starkly contrasted with images of the asylum such as Hogarth’s 1763 engraving; Plate 8 A Scene from Bedlam from his series A Rake’s Progress where he cements the Britannia coin into the wall turning critical focus back on British Society as a Bedlam. The central protagonist Tom has lost everything, his fortune, liberty and his mind. His steep descent; the result of vanity, greed, excess and the latter stages of syphilis, presents a moral, cautionary tale; his body and mind mirroring the health of the nation. Hogarth’s biting satirical vision of class, hypocrisy and deprivation is presented like a cinematic storyboard or play. Tom’s fortunes have progressively turned; the class he was part of now mocks him, seen in the well-dressed lady and her maid in the background visiting the asylum for amusement. He is oblivious to the love that has stood beside him in every frame, the figure of Sarah who still cares for him in spite of his now desperate circumstances. In the context of this exhibition Hogarth’s image of Bedlam takes on a different meaning over and above the 18th Century moral judgement of its protagonist. Wealth and position are meaningless in the face of human suffering and mental distress; any one of us can be made destitute, regardless of who we are or the circumstances we were born into. The illustration isn’t a vision of Gothic Horror even though it is an earthly vision of hell. This quality can also be seen in the 1814 Broadsheet etching by George Cruikshank of “James Norris, (misnamed as William) chained to the wall by his neck for ten years”. The emphasis is on the calm and subdued resignation on Norris’s face, rather than tabloid caricature. The insanity portrayed in this image is the society that treats human beings in such a way, akin to slavery. It is an early Nineteenth Century public call for reform, highlighting institutionalised neglect and collective responsibility.
Turning the tables on visions of madness, Vincent Van Gogh’s etched portrait of Dr Gachet; L’Homme à la Pipe (1890) accompanied by the artist’s observation; “ He’s very nervous and very bizarre himself” brought a smile to my face in its defiance of the Romantic myth of the mad genius artist. Equally the dignity and clarity of Richard Dadd’s portrait of his psychiatrist; Sir Alexander Morison 1779-1866, Alienist (1852, Oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland) is an arresting example of one human being beholding another. It is also the doctor seen through the eyes of his patient. Morison holds his top hat before him in salutation to the artist/ viewer, with no power differential elevating the subject. It is an image of an aged, vulnerable man, rendered with Dadd’s characteristic care and minute attention to detail. Morison’s gently furrowed brow and steadfast gaze meets our own as equal. He stands before his estate, a book and white cloth in his other hand, lines of cloud drifting in an uncanny state of natural order in the pale blue sky above. His grey suit, dishevelled hair and kindly mouth, ever so slightly raised at the corners, convey the stature of a friend or fellow patient, rather than an eminent psychiatrist treating the afflicted. It is a highly empathic image, depicting the regard of one human being for another, regardless of class, condition or circumstance. It is also an intensely moving work in the understated positioning of the figure and the way that compassion is engendered in the heart and mind of the viewer as our eyes meet Morison’s.
Henry Hering’s photographic portrait of Richard Dadd in Bethlem at work on his painting Contradiction (1857) also turns the tables of expectation, presenting the image of a professional artist before his easel, rather than an afflicted patient. This is very much in keeping with the desire for progressive reform and cure, seen in Hering’s “before and after” photographs of individual patients on their admission and release from Bethlem Hospital. Richard Dadd’s fastidious, obsessively detailed paintings of fairy folk are well known, but here he conveys a very grounded sense of recognition in the portrait of his doctor, appealing to the contemporary viewer as an enduringly humane presence.
Film has a very interesting interpretative and documentary function in the exhibition, investigating the blurred lines between clinical and art practice. Co-directed by Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson, Abandoned Goods (2014 , 35mm, S16mm, HD) is a visual essay exploring “one of Britain’s major collections of Asylum Art containing about 5,500 objects (paintings, drawings, ceramics, sculptures and works on stone, flint and bone) created between 1946 and 1981, by about 140 people compelled to live in the Netherne psychiatric hospital in South London.” Commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and the Maudsley Charity the film combines archive, 35mm rostrum, and observational photography exploring the ambiguities between clinical material, art therapy and revered art objects in their journey from asylum to gallery. “Outsider Art” has always been a contentious label with the language, exhibition space and market often framing the identity or intentionality of the artist in terms of freakish novelty. The film’s title “Abandoned Goods” is extremely apt in human terms as until it is commodified such art is usually hidden. Borg and Lawrenson’s visual essay highlights individual voices, opening up debate about collections of creative work made in a therapeutic context and asserting the validity of human expression in all its forms.
Javier Tellez’s reimagining of Robert Weine’s Silent Expressionist Classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920); Caligari und der Schlafwandler / Caligari and the Sleepwalker (2008, Super 16mm transferred to video, 27:07 mins) is a fascinating exploration of categorisations of “normal” and “abnormal”, using patients as actors, participants, commentators and witnesses. The ethical considerations in making such a film are considerable and made it an uncomfortable watch at times; even though interviews with the actors anchored the director’s overall aesthetic in the language of documentary. The lines between who are the artists/ filmmakers/ actors and who are the institutionalised patients/participants are deliberately blurred. Tellez plays on multiple levels with the translation of the German word for mad; meaning “shifted, not where it is meant to be,” suggesting a spectrum rather than a polarised judgement about “normal” or “abnormal”, sane or insane. The clinical function of creativity vs the cinematic tradition of the director as auteur creates a certain tension. Crafted in the chiaroscuro of the original, with the sleepwalker Cesare recast as an Alien, who reveals that our planet is an illusion and the intergalactic territory we strive towards (his alien star) is a psychiatric hospital. Sound dialogue is delivered via blackboard German into (English) subtitles, an interesting twist on the silent tradition of explanatory intertitles. The blackboard is simultaneously a barrier to direct communication and a tool for dialogue, learning and teaching. Tellez picks up on the original film’s conclusive reveal; where the Doctor as a figure of authority and state is actually the straightjacketed patient, a reflection of Germany during the Weimar period and the rise of madness that was Nazism. Whilst elements of the film are playful, feeling semi-improvised and experimental, the historicised visuals of Caligari and the Sleepwalker also create a retrospective feeling of unease, with thoughts about the actual fate of the film’s collaborators had it been made in the 1920’s as opposed to 2008 shifting perception. It is however, a film of light over darkness; “How do you perceive the world around you?” Cesare the sleepwalker/ alien answers; “Through love.”
The sculptural installation Schering Chess (2015, Mixed media) by Javier Tellez also embraces provocative ambiguity in a static game where the chess pieces are reproductions of Pre- Columbian figures used by the pharmaceutical company Schering to advertise its treatments during the early 1970’s. Figures representing different mental illnesses, labelled with the corresponding Schering treatment are displayed on a board resembling hospital lino with the pawn pieces taking the form of fragile eggs. The oppositional chess pieces, one side comprised of red earth, the other rendered in pristinely artificial, manufactured white are held in a display case, facing each other off in a controlled environment.
As with many Wellcome exhibitions Bedlam: the asylum and beyond is accompanied by an enviable programme of cross disciplinary special events, an extended exhibition catalogue in Mike Jay’s publication This Way Madness Lies- The asylum and Beyond (Thames and Hudson) and a parallel exhibition curated by Sam Curtis, ‘Reclaiming Asylum’, being held at the Bethlem Gallery, from 21 September– 11 November 2016. Although for many people the subject of mental illness remains overwhelmingly dark, this exhibition shifts the emphasis away from the idea of affliction to acceptance and optimism through shared human insight. In consequence the overall tone of the exhibition is resoundingly hopeful. Again I am reminded of Maslow’s pyramid and Carl Rogers’ concept of self-actualisation projected into the wider sphere of society; “When I look at the world I’m pessimistic, but when I look at people I am optimistic.” What this exhibition celebrates is the natural tendency of human beings to strive towards light and understanding through creativity, even in the most extreme circumstances of trauma and distress.