Art and Mental Health

9 April 2019

Arts Council Collection’s most recent Curators’ Day event was hosted by Bethlem Museum of the Mind and Bethlem Gallery, focusing on Art and Mental Health. Curatorial Trainee, Priya Jay, reports back on the day of discussions and discoveries, which featured presentations by organisations who centre experiences of mental health in their programming.

 

Upon entering Bethlem Museum of the Mind, the statues of Melancholy and Raving Madness greet us. The life-size figures by Danish sculptor Caisu Gabriel Cibber depict the manic and melancholic binaries which formed much of pre-medieval and early modern understandings of the symptoms and expression of mental illness.

Colin Gale, Director of the Museum, explained that the figures mounted the entrance gate posts for the old Bethlem Royal Hospital between 1676 and 1815. They were not meant to be looked at eye to eye but here, in the Museum, visitors must become level with them to enter. This reappropriation of historic objects and ideals is at the heart of the Museum’s contemporary practice. Located on the grounds of the oldest psychiatric hospital in the country, the Museum and Gallery are key to public understandings of mental health treatment and the artistic outputs of residents.

The Museum and Gallery are part of the 270-acre site of Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham. Their proximity to a fully-functioning hospital enables a unique programme of art and engagement, working with current patients, occupational therapists and former residents who continue to visit.

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After Colin’s introduction to the site, we were led round Bethlem Gallery’s current exhibition Switching Perceptions by artist Eleanor Minney. Eleanor developed the exhibition in collaboration with Professor Liz Tunbridge and patients from the National Psychosis Unit. Together they unpick the underlying question “what creates a sense of self?” by looking into the relationship between scientific diagnosis and deeply subjective experience.

A central work is Eleanor’s Segment of aself, a four-metre long textile piece suspended from the ceiling. Two lengths of calico are separated by a thick wadding, one side is filled with rows of intricate ciphers alluding to holistic selfhood - pain, home, growth, community, relationships. And the other is covered in a geometric map of the human genome. Red embroidered circles highlight the three genomes that indicate increased risk of schizophrenia, their threads emerge on the other side and interrupt the steady sequence of symbols. The work poetically describes our entangled inner worlds, and the way diagnoses or scientific research can unexpectedly insert itself into daily routine.

Arts Council Collection: Art and Mental Health
Arts Council Collection: Art and Mental Health

The next speaker of the day was Sam Curtis, Curator at Bethlem Gallery, who gave us an overview of the Gallery’s activities and the ways they strive to work sensitively. The Gallery is artist-led and takes a peer to peer approach, which creates a more supportive creative environment. Sam emphasises that they are advocates for art and art-making, and as a result it’s important that the people they work with are considered first as artists, and patients second.

The Gallery serves as a necessary non-clinical space in which artists’ creative vision is prioritised. As with the Museum, the geography of the Gallery informs its approach. They encourage artists to explore the grounds, and expect to work with both local and national artists and visitors who are part of the Hospital’s rehabilitation programme. I felt the key take away from Sam’s introduction was the refusal to use the term ‘outsider art’. This reflects the Gallery’s commitment to being a levelling and respectful space that takes diversity seriously.

In contrast to a formal Gallery space, Dragon Café in London provides a space every Monday for anyone to come and be creative. Declan McGill, Projects and Programme Manager at Dragon Café, spoke to us about the mission of their late founder Sarah Wheeler and how they’ve organised 293 pop-ups to date.

Sarah founded Mental Fight Club in 2003 and the Dragon Café serves as the embodiment of their inspirational and supportive ethos. The Café pops up in the Crypt of St. George the Martyr Church on Borough High Street, and they are supported by Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Charity, Southwark Council, Better Bankside and NHS Southwark Clinical Commissioning Group.

Activities vary week to week and range from singing, football, writing, dance, professional massage therapy, open mic and subsidised hot meals. As Declan reiterated “Every Monday is a new Monday!”. 

Arts Council Collection: Art and Mental Health
Arts Council Collection: Art and Mental Health

We were then taken on a special tour of the grounds by Matthew Williams, artist in residence at Bethlem Gallery. We walked through the surrounding woodland to a small clearing which revealed the project that he had been working on. Half of the frame of an abandoned car emerged from the soil. Matthew had spotted some metal coming out of the ground, and once a week he would return and pick away at the debris with small tools he found.

Now that most of the antiquated skeleton was exposed, Matthew was considering how to develop it further into an art project. Matthew takes visitors on Art and History walks around the grounds, which can be booked on Eventbrite or through the Bethlem Gallery website. He also handed us all a leaflet that he had made which listed the abundance of wildlife specific to this area, including birds, trees, insects and plants.

Following the wet walk through the forest, Sue from Bethlem Wood Library took us to the Old Orchard which, until recently, was home to lots of soft fruit trees. Contractors were hired by the Hospital to cut down the trees, as the obscured fence posed a security risk. Sue and many others were furious that the historical orchard was destroyed, and she hopes the empty space will be used to host activity or arts in the near future. In response to the unjustified deforestation, Sue painted a remaining stump in gold leaf and etched the names of the plum trees into another, to highlight their value and importance. Both Sue and Matthew’s tours gave us insight into the changing nature of the Hospital’s surroundings, allowing us to speculate what it would have been like decades ago and what it could be decades from now.

Back at the Museum, artist Courtney gave us a presentation about his work, which included paintings and video works. He reflected on his upbringing in Zimbabwe and the stigma he felt for occupying a different shaped body. While overcoming challenges in both physical and mental health, he channeled much of his healing through his artwork.

Courtney worked with the Occupational Therapy department and began to storyboard with them. This resulted in three beautiful and jarring films, which drew from his time in solitary confinement for offending behaviour. Courtney went on to say that “mental health can be shocking and frightening” but the process of working through this complexity is helping him to make peace with himself and others. Courtney will be in residence at the Wellcome Collection later this year.

Courtney worked closely with Michaela Ross, Bethlem’s Art Coordinator. In addition to her work with the Gallery, Michaela is also a curator and an artist. She emphasised the importance of not conflating a patient’s artwork and their diagnosis. People often try to read symptoms based on the art someone produces, or conversely, upon discovering an artist is also a patient, they become greedy for biographical information. Michaela is trying to get out of dominant medicalised ways of interpreting work, and is interested in art work that reverses this mode of observation. She introduced us to the work of artist James Leadbitter aka the vacuum cleaner, whose practice ranges from subvertising campaigns to performance. His interventions highlight social inequity, including the Disability Awareness Document he keeps available on his contact page, which outlines the way in which he would like to be treated.

Arts Council Collection: Art and Mental Health

Michaela also introduced us to Mr X, a long-term resident of the Hospital, who makes brilliant cardboard structures which he then mounts on wheels and carts around the grounds of the Hospital. He initially started making this work in his room, using his key to cut the cardboard. When staff began to take notice, they tried to contain his practice by only allowing his sculptures to be a certain size - he used the lengths of his arms and legs to measure the edges, so much of Mr X’s early work has very human proportions. After various arts organisations began to take notice of his work, hospital staff began to see his work as valuable and allowed him to create his work more freely. Michaela talked about the danger of staff, including herself, imposing their own anxieties and limitations on artists.

To conclude the Curators’ Day, Colin Gale opened up a discussion about curating the Museum’s permanent display and the challenge of displaying objects with troubling pasts. The Museum offer a variety of different interpretive strategies, which require visitors to complete some action to reveal more context. An example included paintings which did not have captions displayed. Visitors are invited to contemplate the work and write down what they think the title would be, after leafing through others’ interpretations, they find the real details at the bottom. This reiterated the importance of not being told what to think by interpretive material, but instead encouraging intimacy and valuing alternative perspectives.

By the end of the day, delegates had been encouraged to consider sensitive and respectful approaches to curating work associated with mental health and the ways in which gallery spaces play a key role in shifting stigmas.

Find out more about Arts Council Collection Curators' Days.

 

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