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Art in the Asylum: creativity and the evolution of psychiatry is an upcoming exhibition at the Djanogly Art Gallery Lakeside Arts Centre Nottingham. It runs Saturday 7 September – Sunday 3 November. Also running alongside is the video installation MARAT SADE BOHNICE: Althea Thauberger.
From the exhibition’s organisers:
Art in the Asylum presents the first examination of the evolution of artistic activity in British psychiatric institutions from the early 1800s to the 1970s. With over 100 loans from national and international archives, the exhibition traces the historical shift from invasive treatments of mental disorders to a more humane regime in which creativity played a significant role.
Highlighting key institutions and influential figures in the history of British mental healthcare, the exhibition includes the earliest use of creativity in the Crichton Royal Institution in Dumfries under the direction of Dr. W. A. F. Browne; the pioneering work of Edward Adamson at the Netherne Hospital in Surrey; and the free expression of residents at Kingsley Hall in London, a therapeutic community run by Dr. R. D. Laing. Works by Richard Dadd and Louis Wain represent some of the most well-known patient art associated with the Bethlem Royal Hospital, or ‘Bedlam’.
The exhibition also acknowledges the strong influence of continental psychiatry on British practice with the inclusion of artworks by patients under the care of notable psychiatrists such as Walter Morgenthaler, Hans Prinzhorn and Leo Navratil; they include Adolf Wölfli, Johann Hauser and August Walla represented in the exhibition by important loans from the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne established by Jean Dubuffet.
Uncovering fascinating stories, this historical overview provides insight to the diagnostic and therapeutic use of patient artwork, its influence on the development of humane psychiatric practice, and its wider recognition by artists associated with Art Brut and so-called Outsider Art.
Running concurrently with Art in the Asylum is a new video installation by Canadian artist Althea Thauberger, featuring a filmed performance of Peter Weiss’ 1963 play Marat/Sade at the Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital, Prague, in 2012.
Marat/Sade imagines the infamous Marquis de Sade as author and director of a play about the bloody assassination of Jean-Paul Marat while the former was interned in the Charenton asylum in 1808. A time of great institutional reform, this period saw the beginnings of the reformation of the treatment of mental illness from punishment to therapy. In the 1963 play, the inmates of the asylum enact the drama, and are always partly themselves, as patients, and partly in historical character.
While the original play is set in the bathhouse of Charenton, Thauberger’s filmed production is performed to an audience of staff and patients in another post-revolutionary institution: Bohnice, the largest psychiatric clinic in the Czech Republic.
Characteristic of her collaborative projects with specific social groups or communities, Thauberger’s film includes interviews with psychiatric staff and patients at Bohnice giving the participants a voice and raising questions about institutionalization, power and self-determination.
Accompany the exhibition and are free!
Friday 6 September 6.30-7.30pm
Dr. Esra Plumer and Dr. Victoria Tischler on the historic use of art in mental health institutions and the interplay between creativity and madness, introducing some of the spaces, places and key figures in the fascinating history of crossover between visual art and mental health care.
Saturday 7 September
Wednesday 11 September 6-8pm
Edward Adamson’s life and work: creativity and the evolution of art as therapy
Dr. Susan Hogan (University of Derby, author of Healing Arts: The History of Art Therapy 2001) with contributions from John Timlin (Adamson Collection) and Dr. David O’Flynn (Consultant Psychiatrist & Chair of the Adamson Collection). The groundbreaking work of the ‘grandfather of art therapy’ Edward Adamson is considered alongside associations between therapy and Surrealism.
Wednesday 18 September 6.30-7.30pm
A hidden gem: Dr. W. A. F. Browne’s collection of patient art at Crichton Royal Institution, Dumfries
Dr. Maureen Park (University of Glasgow, author of Art in Madness 2011) discusses the pioneering work of Dr. Browne and his collection of patient art, the oldest surviving collection of asylum art in the world.
Wednesday 2 October 6-8pm
Ancient and modern mental healthcare
Jules Evans (author of the bestselling Philosophy for Life: and other Dangerous Situations 2012) with Dr. Ben Di Mambro (Consultant Psychiatrist) and Dr. Arun Chopra (Consultant Psychiatrist) From ancient philosophy to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), recent controversies in psychiatric diagnostics and the launch of the DSM-V, the speakers discuss how old and new approaches might interact in the provision of mental health care today.
Wednesday 16 October 6.30-8.30pm
Looking into art from the asylum: Prof. Roger Cardinal (author of the seminal text Outsider Art 1972); and Richard Dadd and Asylum Art of the 19th century: Dr. Nick Tromans, Curator, Watts Gallery, Surrey.
Artists whose approaches diverge radically from average expectation and from officially sanctioned approaches and styles are discussed alongside Richard Dadd, one of the best- known British asylum artists
Wednesday 30 October 6.30pm-7.30pm
Marat/Sade and the ‘theatre of cruelty’
Dr. Gordon Ramsay and Dr. James Moran (English Dept. University of Nottingham) consider Peter Brook’s 1964 production of Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade in the context of Antonin Artaud’s ‘theatre of cruelty’
Aidan Moesby’s exhibition ‘Do you think we can talk about this?’ has recently opened in Newcastle’s Centre for Life. Aidan has kindly agreed to a text interview with the AoP blog, which is apt. See previous post for more details about the exhibition
What is a text based artist?
To my mind, in the most simplistic terms and almost self defining, a text based artist is one who concentrates on creating art using words rather than other traditional materials and methods. I use linguistic rather than visual imagery. It is very often conceptual in nature – with the inherent idea being paramount rather than its execution. Text based art became more prevalent in the 60’s since when it has become much more of a genre in itself.
In my practice however, I do not only use words. I use printing, installation, new and mixed media. At some stage other people are also often involved either directly or indirectly; for example if I am making work about a building I may collect people’s stories who visit or work/worked there. This impacts on my choice of materials and how I execute my work. Some of my text pieces do not contain text as such and are merely allusions or metaphor.
What drew you to concentrate on this avenue of artistic expression?
I had been working therapeutically with severely traumatised adolescents and young children. The importance of the word – how everyone has their own individualised or personalised language, imagery, metaphor – was obvious and powerful, and this extends beyond the white room or ‘walled garden’ or wherever the intervention occurred. I am passionate about ‘the word’, language and communication. I had become more interested in art than therapy having completed an MA in Art and Psychotherapy. It seemed a natural transition to use text in my art – particularly as I have no ‘traditional’ art skills and have not been to Art School.
Ten years ago I was living in Bristol and regularly taking part in poetry slams. This lead on to a residency as a poet in a school – something I had never done or even considered – but I really enjoyed it. This lead on to other writer-in-residence opportunities and that in turn lead onto becoming more ‘art’ focussed than writing. Sometimes I find writing too limiting, too precious.
What are your motifs? Do you often address themes of mental health?
My work has everything and nothing to do with mental health. What I tend to address is relationships, identity and memory. My work explores visual and linguistic imagery that we use to create and make sense of the worlds we create and inhabit. Firstly there is the relationship to ourselves, others and the world around us. We need to understand our place in the world. Our relationships are often characterised by conflict – intra-psychic, intra and inter – personal etc. As we progress in life we carry with us our psychological heritage – our ‘baggage’. So I guess the motifs are those pertinent to the human condition. For example the piece ‘Unburnt Ashes’ – which shows a face and the words ‘I’m the ashes remembering what it was to be unburnt’ – this could equally apply to me trying to piece myself together after my diagnosis or equally to the aftermath of a failed relationship where I or ‘one’ is trying to remember how they were before entering into the relationship and being hurt or losing themselves. My work with mirrors is a definite nod to my therapeutic training although I no longer work as a therapist.
My disorder is a part of me as is my art and my need to create. I cannot turn my mental disorder off and on and therefore as I live in the world and respond to it then my work addresses mental health – in the generic and specific senses. However my work is not always issue lead but it does attempt to be emotionally engaging. I like to think that within some of the work there is humour.
Ultimately the work has a displacement, it acknowledges that we are in a state of constant flux and inhabit the often subtle, fragile and dynamic boundary between the conflicted continuum of ‘ease’ and ‘dis-ease’.
How do you hope that your work will get a conversation going about the stereotypical images of those with mental health difficulties?
Like I say, my work attempts to be emotionally engaging, It is not pretty, you wouldn’t choose it to match your curtains. However, nor can you see it and not somehow get an itch from it – not necessarily immediately, more one of those that creeps up on you and yet somehow you can’t quite reach it.
I hope that by being in the Centre for Life initially, a totally different audience will get to see it. The audience there is not an ‘art crowd’ or a ‘mental health crowd’, but the general public. I feel by bringing the mental health discussion in the open in a relatively subtle way, it becomes more accessible and normalises mental health issues – there’s the desert, there’s the genetics, there’s the planets, there’s mental health – because everyone has mental health – we’re all somewhere on the ‘good bad’ continuum. In the Centre for Life people are generally in an open inquisitive explorative frame of mind. Hopefully stumbling upon my exhibition will initiate a conversation in the same vein.
The work on show is not ‘in yer face’, some are quiet and contemplative and some are gently challenging. If people can see that they do have mental health and that mental health issues or difficulties can affect anyone then maybe that can engender a change, a reflection. The fact that the exhibition is public, not hidden and there on merit, not out of tokenism are all positive and challenging elements. It can be a struggle, it’s not all rock and roll but people with mental health difficulties can lead fulfilling rich and varied lives.
Mental health diagnoses are given to individuals, but your work references both the personal and the cultural. How do you view mental disorders?
I am interested in culture and I am interested in mental health. I think the cultural language around mental health is pejorative. It is the last bastion of the ‘open season’ given that, and thank goodness, the cultural landscape around racism, sexism, homophobia etc have been addressed somewhat. For a start people with mental health diagnosis tend to adopt them and take them on. Yes, there can be something comforting about a label but people don’t say ‘I am renal failure’, ‘I am heart disease’, in the same way people say ‘I am Bipolar’, ‘I am Psychotic’. Psychiatric diagnosis subsumes the individual, the personal identity gets lost. Also, a personal bug bear is ‘T4’ (weekend morning teen-aimed slot on Channel 4). T4 was also codename for ‘Tiergarten 4’ in Berlin which during the second world was an organisation created for the euthanizing of adults with mental health problems and physical disabilities. Can you think of any other cohort of people where missing such an obvious cultural reference would be tolerated? This can only be because mental health problems are so low on our agenda.
As I have said earlier we are at once fascinated by the kooky and weird and then vilify them just as easy when we tire of them. This is not a consistent message for society regarding mental health. And we need look no further than the sensational headlines in the red tops. We have double standards – How many people get drunk and are violent regularly on a weekend compared to those with diagnosed mental health issues? We have very few positive role models or representations in culture of people with mental health difficulties – be that books, movies, music or art.
What’s your view on the relationship between art and ‘madness’?
I know this is everyone’s pet subject but I just don’t subscribe to it. I am not denying certain links between madness and creativity but what about those who are ‘mad’ and NOT creative – doubly dammed? Is it just the case that we are creative in times of unrest, struggle, extremes – falling in and out of love –and uncreative when everything is just dandy? Is it more to do with us ‘feeling’ intensely alive and in the world and having something to say about it? Then there are those who are creative and relatively sane and rational – whoever they are!
Do you have a view on the effect that psychiatric medication has on creativity?
All I can comment here is my personal experience. When I first got diagnosed and began to be medicated I cannot say whether it was the medication or extreme trauma or unwellness that rendered me uncreative. However in the attempts to stabilise me and the upward curve of dosage I generally began to feel detached from the world. Eventually I stabilised and I was looking into the world through the thousand yard stare. I was awake but not experiencing the world in any meaningful manner. I said to my psychiatrist that in order to create I needed to feel and this would aid recovery – self esteem, engaging with the world etc. As the medication reduced I began to experience the world, engage with it and respond to it – I could feel and create. To me therefore there is a direct correlation between medication and creativity. What I cannot also comment on is would I have been more or less creative now – unmedicated – cycling through the very creative manias I experienced previously but not so able to manage the day to day.
You say in your statement that we all yearn for ‘quick fixes’ and have lost our sense of self and integrity. Can you unpack this a bit?
I am only at the beginning of a discourse on this. It centres around the digital and throwaway culture. The ‘now’ and the ‘me’ culture. We appear to be obsessed, not with having a skill or being good at something but with being famous. We desire fame as an entity in itself via a plethora of vacuous talent shows and people who want to be WAGs for what it brings, not for love of another. There are the cathartic 15 minutes of fame – I produced a piece ‘Have you been affected by this issue?’ for the 40th anniversary exhibition of the Disability Act (ODI-Parliament) – the morally redundant confessionals. We all want to be something or someone else.
Despite digital ‘connectedness’ I feel we have never been more disconnected. I go to the theatre and there are people on smart phones facebooking or tweeting – yet they are in a real world event with real people and real friends; people don’t seem to be able to dissociate from the screen. We conduct our relationships differently now, how we communicate mediates the meaning of what is ‘said’ – text, tweet, phone call, letter. People forget that putting things on the net is visible to others and not just their ‘friends’.
It seems we all want to be on easy street, why exercise when surgery will do it overnight? We want others to do it for us, we live vicariously through ‘Lifestyle’ magazines – self help is so last century. As far as mental health goes I think there is definitely a ‘it’s your problem not mine’ , ‘let’s not talk about it for fear I catch it’ or ‘I don’t/won’t acknowledge I have issues around mental health’. This reinforces stereotyping and stigma – but it’s everyone’s issue. Overall I think we haven’t come to terms with the advances in technology, the changing roles for people, the changes in communication. We have lost the true sense of community and connectedness and have not truly adapted to post-Thatcher society.
Which other artists would you recommend to readers of this blog?
Fiona Banner was an early influence on my work. Felix Gonzales Torres, Susan Hiller, Jaume Plensa, Roni Horn, Claire Fontaine, Bruce Nauman, Sophie Calle, Jenny Holzer, Barbera Kruger. So many, though I tend not to go for one artist – I like individual pieces for example Hayley Newmans’ Kuss Prufung (Kiss Exam) 1999 and I prefer work which isn’t just projection or polemic because that smacks of ‘quick fix’ and I prefer more depth and substance. However, everything has its time and place.
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Filed under: Exhibitions
Aidan Moesby a text based artist has just installed Do you think we can talk about this? a solo exhibition at the Centre For Life in Newcastle. It is a collection of pieces which reflect on his personal experience of being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and addresses elements of the personal and cultural agenda surrounding mental health. It runs until June
Aidan says: “At once we are fascinated by those perceived as kooky, off beat, crazy and then we tire of them and vilify them and perpetuate the stereotypical images and viewpoints of those living with an enduring mental health condition. I hope we can talk about it, I hope we can get a right good open honest discussion going”
Information about the artist
Text Based Artist – Installation, Letterpress, Printing, Mixed Media
A socially engaged text based artist Moesbys’ work is informed through the linguistic and visual imagery we use to create and make sense of the worlds we inhabit. Text based installations explore the conflict within the personal and cultural agendas of our Cultural and Psychological heritage. He utilises a variety of media, technologies and approaches in order to realise the artwork yet the text and its imbued meaning is always paramount
Framing of the Work:
Aidan Moesby utilises metaphor to provoke a re-evaluation of what it means to experience psychological conflict. The work references the ‘Personal’ and ‘Cultural’ worlds. It explores the preoccupation with the ‘Pop’ psychology of the disposable ‘low brow’ visual media culture which offers the empty promise of 15 minutes of fame through simulated catharsis.
The work has everything and nothing to do with his own experience of Bipolar Disorder. We all experience the highs, lows and ennui of life. To some extent we have lost our sense of Self and our Integrity. Validation is sought from others rather than from within. We yearn for vicarious fulfilment, the projected phantasy, the glossy dream, the ‘quick fix’ down on ‘Easy Street’. We do not wish to look at or acknowledge our own psychological fragilities, and very often we do not wish to attend to those fragilities of others lest we catch them.
Aidan attempts to explore the frailty of the Human Condition in all its imperfect splendour. He mines a rich and complex vein of written and visual language in an effort to gain an understanding and awareness of how we can make sense our place in the worlds we create. Ultimately he acknowledges that we are in a state of constant flux and the work remains to inhabit the often subtle, fragile and dynamic boundary between the conflicted continuum of ‘ease’ and ‘dis-ease’.
More information about Aidan Moesby can be found online at:
Filed under: Exhibitions
Pier Angeli (Ship of Fools), 2009
Oil on canvas paper
19 15/16 x 15 7/8 inches
(50.6 x 40.3 cm)
Review by Dr Jonathan Hurlow – the exhibition ran 27th November- 23rd December 2009
Kevan’s Ship Of Fools exhibition at the Fine Art Society was highly successful in leading to a large number of acquisitions by collectors. The sheer quantity of staring wide eyes has a profound and haunting effect on anyone who entered their basement full of her portraits. The paintings are both kind to the eye and rich with a nostalgic resonance with 1950’s children’s book illustrations. Her bold claims about exploring the historic notion of an association between mental health problems and success are ambitious, if a little thin and unclear.
Even so, appreciation and respect are due to her for fostering of interest in people who are successful despite or because of their mental health problems. This work almost lies at the opposite pole to the often harmful popular exploration of possible links between mental disorder and violent offending. Here we find no crass attempts to provide quick thrills by portraying people with mental illness as terrifying psycho killers. However I remain a little puzzled about what Kevan’s actually does with this more positive ancient debate about madness and genius.
I am not too sure that I recognise any particular difference between this body of work and her past exhibitions. The style and large number of famous faces seem similar. The only distinction appears to lie in her selection of successful people who have somehow been associated with suggestions that they are mentally unwell. Perhaps the absence of any descriptions regarding how she selected these people is due her resistance to believing that this can be done sensibly. I am too cynical, but I also wonder why her work seems to have changed so little whilst the associated themes catalogue a diverse series of spicy popular foci of controversy. If she aims to explore this topic of such weight, then perhaps her large numbers of familiar, stereotyped and accessible portraits are not quite sufficient.
There is growing evidence that highly creative people are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, but I see no sign acknowledgement of this. Rather than casting somewhat retro counter culture style allusions to the challenges inherent in describing mental health problems, perhaps she would be better off asking how the great success of some people with mental health problems can take place whilst so many others struggle to overcome an excess of discrimination and socio-economic deprivation. I am no fan of those who take concepts too far in art and I cannot praise her enough for drawing attention to this positive stigma-busting idea, but I hope Kevans returns to this topic and provides a little more clarity in the future.
Images courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York.
Photographer: Christopher Burke Studios
© Annie Kevans
Syd Barrett was a founding member and original lead singer of the progressive rock band Pink Floyd. He left the group in 1968 amid speculation of mental illness in the context of heavy drug use. When he died in 2006 he had not appeared or spoken in public since the mid-nineteen seventies.
There are many accounts of Barrett’s bizarre behaviour before his withdrawal from public life, although these were often related by people who were themselves intoxicated at the time. At one stage R. D. Laing was reportedly approached for advice; on hearing a tape of a Barrett conversation, Laing declared him “incurable”. After leaving the band one of Barrett’s final meetings with the remaining members of Pink Floyd was when he appeared at a recording session in 1975. By coincidence the band were recording a song about him. He had put on much weight and had shaved his hair and eyebrows and at first he was not recognized.
Whether or not Barrett suffered from an enduring mental disorder is in question. Barrett’s sister Rosemary when speaking to Barrett’s biographer was adamant that Barrett had not received treatment for mental illness during the previous 25 years and did not have a mental disorder.
There is an exhibition of Barrett’s artwork and letters at the Idea Generation gallery from 18 March until 10 April.